Montreal·CBC Investigates

Montreal fire department ordered to fix gaps in its dangerous, vacant building list

Following a CBC Montreal investigation that revealed inconsistencies in the list firefighters depend on to keep them safe, Quebec's workplace health and safety board has ordered the fire department to fix it.

Communication has to improve, says Quebec's workplace health and safety board

Chris Ross, vice-president of the Montreal firefighters union, peers into an unused autobody garage on Marie-Anne Street. It, along with several abandoned buildings is not on the master list firefighters rely on to alert them to additional dangers. (CBC)

The moment Chris Ross peered through the windows of an unused autobody garage this fall, he saw a potential death trap for firefighters.

Boarded up for years, the garage, located on Marie-Anne Street, still housed abandoned cars, tires and barrels of what appeared to be oil.

Holes were also visible in the ceiling.

In this file photo, abandoned cars, tires and barrels of what appeared to be oil were still inside this unused autobody garage, which is on Marie-Anne Street. Despite the potential hazards, firefighters were not aware of the building. (CBC)

The garage was one of several abandoned, potentially dangerous buildings CBC News showed Ross, who is the vice-president of the Montreal firefighters union. 

In each case, the borough knew about the buildings, but apparently hadn't transmitted the information to the fire department, who depend on a master list to keep them safe.

Chris Ross, vice-president of the Montreal firefighters union, was shocked to learn the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough hadn't shared information about this St. Dominique Street building with the fire department. (CBC News)

That list of problem buildings is maintained by the fire department. It includes notes on any hazards that could endanger firefighters such as weak walls, missing balconies or holes in the roof.

"I have to admit, I am flabbergasted," said Ross at the time, who said the gaps suggested a major communication breakdown.

Accuracy, better communication

A few weeks after CBC's report, Quebec's workplace health and safety board met with the fire department to review the list and see if any changes needed to be made.

Following that November meeting, the CNESST ordered them to remedy the discrepancies.

CNESST spokeswoman Alexandra Burnet says the fire department now needs to develop a formal way to ensure that their list of vacant and dangerous buildings is accurate.

File photo of the former Armstrong carpet factory off the Décarie Expressway. The borough knew about this building, long boarded up and scrawled with graffiti, but the building wasn't on the fire department's list.

"They have to include a way to have good communication with the different administrations of the City of Montreal," said Burnet.

Workplace health and safety inspectors are available to work with the fire department to help them develop the new procedure. 

A follow-up meeting is scheduled at the end of January.

Communication breakdown put firefighters at risk

The CNESST's remedial order comes on the 26th anniversary of the death of Lt. René Massé.
In December 1990, Lt. René Massé was killed after he was trapped in a burning, vacant building on St. Hubert Street. After his death, major changes were made to the way the fire service keeps track of empty and dangerous buildings. (CBC)

Massé died in December 1990 after he was trapped in a burning, vacant building on St-Hubert Street.

After his death, the CSST (CNESST's predecessor) ordered the fire department to keep an inventory of vacant and dangerous buildings.

News of the rare "corrective" was welcomed by Ross, who points out that the lack of continuity between the boroughs and the fire department put firefighters at risk.

"It's fitting that the CNESST has followed up on their original report and at the same time disappointing that the Montreal fire department seems to have learned so little," said Ross.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Send tips to montrealinvestigates@cbc.ca.

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