Almost half of Hamilton house fires last year had no working smoke alarm: report

Hamilton Fire's 2017 annual report shows that only 54.4 per cent of the homes to which firefighters were called had working smoke alarms.

Of the six fire fatalities in 2017, not one of the homes had working alarms

A woman and her two children were killed in a fire caused by careless smoking in June 2017, according to an investigation from the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

According to a new report by Hamilton's fire department, just over half of the homes to which local firefighters were called last year had working smoke alarms.

And in all cases where a person was killed in the fire, there were no working smoke alarms.

These are striking statistics, given that fire alarms have been mandatory in Ontario for more than 40 years.

Fire safety officials say after all that time, they are still battling complacency around fire safety. The local statistics were in Hamilton Fire's 2017 annual report, released this week. 

The city numbers, 54.4 per cent, are actually better than the provincial average for homes where there were fires. 

And last year's number is already 6.4 percentage points better than for 2016.

"Although we would suggest that this is still not an acceptable number, the single year trend is going in the right direction," said Hamilton Fire Chief David Cunliffe in an email.

Since 2006, it has been mandatory for all homes to have working alarms on every floor and outside of all sleeping areas according to the Ontario Fire Code. However, units detached from the home such as a garage or a shed, are exempt.

Six people died in fires in 2017. Five of them in homes, and one in a garage. 

"Tragically, in each of the homes in which a fatality occurred in 2017, no working smoke alarms were found," the annual report says.

Numbers released from Hamilton Fire show 2016 had an unusually high number of fatalities, which dropped in 2017. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Smoke alarm awareness across Ontario

Smoke alarms have been mandatory in Ontario homes since 1975. And in March 2006, the fire code was amended to require alarms on every floor.​

The data from the Ontario Fire Marshal's office shows that the problem may not be isolated to Hamilton.

Across Ontario between 2011-2015, smoke alarms were working in just 44 per cent of the fires that caused either injury, deaths or property loss.

There were no smoke alarms in 18 per cent of the homes. 15 per cent of homes had a smoke alarm but they did not go off. In the rest of the homes, it either couldn't be determined if there were smoke alarms or if the alarms were working.

In fires that were fatal, only 32 per cent had smoke alarm warnings.

The 2011-2015 data from Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal show that 18 per cent of homes where there was a fatal fire did not have smoke alarms. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Laura King, the public education representative for the National Fire Protection Association in Canada said smoke alarms are "just one of those things that fall through the cracks."

"It's just complacency and people think [fires] are never going to happen to them, unfortunately," King said.

Older alarms can go off with cooking or burnt toast, so some people would remove the batteries or the alarm entirely, she said. But new improvements to smoke alarms have gotten rid of that problem and there's no need to remove batteries anymore.

New alarms on the market are also interconnected. So if one goes off in the basement, the one in other floors would also ring. 

Two house fires in Hamilton in 2016 caused six fatalities. For both cases, the fire marshal's office said the deaths could be partially attributed to "a lack of fire detection and warning."

Data from the Ontario Fire Marshal's office show that between 2011-2015, of the 18 per cent of fatal fires where the smoke alarm didn't operate, 48 per cent was due to the alarm not being connected to power. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Fire department outreach

In response to the 11 fire fatalities that happened in 2016, an unusually high number, Hamilton Fire launched an outreach program beginning May 2017. Fire crews knocked on doors and installed 1,351 smoke alarms and replaced 273 batteries.

Despite door-to-door education and fire prevention week messaging, "unattended cooking" and "careless smoking" continue to be the top two causes for residential fires, unchanged from 2016.

"These are behavioural based causes and fires that are absolutely preventable," said Cunliffe.

During last year's fire prevention week, Hamilton Fire focused on two messages — working smoke alarms in homes and being prepared with escape plans that outline two ways to escape each room in case of a fire.

While it's not clear just how well the city's messaging is working, Cunliffe said they are still committed to their outreach efforts to "promote the importance of and need for working smoke alarms in residences."


  • A previous version of the story had a pie chart that was titled "Smoke alarm operation statistic in 2011-2015 Ontario residential fires." That has been amended to to show that the numbers are for residential fires that were fatal.
    Mar 29, 2018 8:45 AM ET