Kitchener-Waterloo·CBC Investigates

Residents fed up with fire alarms at Waterloo apartment building

CBC News has learned the HUB apartment had 18 false alarm calls last year, 11 of which were caused by alarm malfunctions that the owner failed to fix.

'Most people aren't associating the alarm with fire anymore,' resident Scott Cosentino says

A photo of The Hub from Columbia Street, taken in 2017 when construction was still taking place. (Submitted by Brooke Willis)

Residents at the Hub apartment complex on Columbia St W., in Waterloo, say they're concerned for their safety and are fed up with the high number of false fire alarms.

"They've been going sort of off and on at least once per month, multiple times throughout the night," said Scott Cosentino, a resident at the building. 

He said during the last false alarm on Dec. 23, the alarm went off "20 times" from midnight to 1:00 a.m. 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, the company that owns the Hub, Accomod8u, says they're "aware of a reported high number of alarms at the property" and are "in dialogue with city officials and Waterloo Fire Rescue." 

Accomod8u said they've completed a review and "the system is operational." 

"The review has indicated that the high number of alarms have been typically due to acts of mischief, vandalism or negligence by tenants," the statement reads. 

Documents obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request indicate the false alarms are often due to system malfunctions.

Fire alarm calls, 130 Columbia St. W Total alarms False alarms

Year 2017

19

13 (5 due to malfunction)

Year 2018

24

18 (11 due to malfunction)

Last year, Waterloo Fire Rescue responded to 24 fire alarm calls at 130 Columbia St. W. Out of that number, 18 were false alarms and 11 of those were due to the alarm malfunctioning. 

In 2017, fire crews responded to a total of 19 calls in the building, 13 out of which were false alarms and five of those were caused by alarm malfunction. 

Costly alarms

Since 2017, Waterloo Fire Rescue has delivered three warning notices to Accomod8u for their fire alarm system deficiency. These notices have been posted on the building's door. On the notice, it indicates it's the owner's obligation to make the building fire safe. 

Ryan Schubert, one of two deputy chiefs with Waterloo Fire Rescue, said these notices only account for incidents where firefighters have been unable to reach the building owner.

In other instances where firefighters made contact with the owner, verbal notices were given. 

A notice posted at the Hub on Dec. 23. (Submitted by Scott Cosentino)

"It's a very complex situation. You have eight structures in total at 130 Columbia and they're actually all one system, so one fire alarm system," Schubert said, meaning that when an alarm in a building goes off, it goes off in all of the buildings.

According to Waterloo's fees and charges bylaw, in 2018 it cost $162.50 per hour per firefighter, every time they have to respond to a false fire alarm. These fees are charged to the building owner. 

In 2019, these fees are $164.55 per hour per firefighter. 

Schubert says with every ringing alarm call they respond to, there must be at least 13 firefighters present, including the platoon chief. That makes the cost for every response that takes an hour, a minimum of $2,112.50. For 18 calls, that's an estimate of $38,025. 

Schubert said the city is currently supporting the building owners to fix the problem. 

"Part of that solution would be to segment the system so there are not so many devices on the entire system, " he said.

'Not many people evacuate anymore'

Ruth Stewart-Petterson, another resident at the Hub, says she will take her dogs out to move them away from the alarm, but if it's bad weather, she won't.

"They've gone hours and hours without telling us what was happening and shutting off the alarm," said Stewart-Petterson.

"If it's 2:00 a.m., we're kind of like, 'Well, this has happened too many times, we're just going to stay in.'"

Cosentino said he's concerned about the safety of the tenants. He estimates there are approximately 500 people who live at the Hub, which consists of eight apartment buildings. 

"I see that not many people evacuate anymore. I think that most people aren't associating the alarm with fire anymore, they're just associating it with false alarm," he said. 

​Accomod8u said every alarm is treated as an emergency and they urge their "residents to do the same by following appropriate fire safety procedures." 

The company did not respond to CBC's questions of when the alarm system will be fully fixed or whether there's a set timeline for it. 

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