Montreal·CBC Investigates

How missing info on vacant buildings is risking the lives of Montreal firefighters

Montreal's boroughs collect crucial information about empty and dangerous buildings, but they're failing to share up-to-date lists with those who need it most: the city's firefighters.

Some boroughs fail to share up-to-date lists of empty, dangerous buildings with fire department in timely way

Chris Ross tours abandoned building missing from fire list

5 years ago
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The vice-president of Montreal's firefighters union was appalled to learn from CBC Montreal Investigates that this Plateau-Mont-Royal building is not on the fire department's own list of vacant and dangerous properties. 0:49

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  • Fire department blames sheer volume of buildings in Montreal on list not being up to date

The Montreal fire department says it's troubled to learn that information firefighters rely on to keep safe may not be accurate nor up to date.

CBC Montreal Investigates has revealed that there are many vacant and possibly dangerous buildings the boroughs know about that are not on the fire department's master list — and the City of Montreal may be to blame.

"For us, this is worrisome," said Denis Doucet, assistant director of the Montreal fire department, in an interview with CBC's French-language service, Radio-Canada.

"It raised questions for us, and I can guarantee that we are taking action to check whether these discrepancies really exist.

"If they are real, we will take measures immediately to try and correct the situation."

Dispatcher's list incomplete

When Montreal firefighters race out to respond to a fire call, their dispatcher warns them if the building they're heading to is vacant or poses a particular danger.

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

Firefighters tackle a blaze in an abandoned building in Old Montreal on March 24, 2016. The fire department keeps a list of problem buildings that pose a risk to firefighters. (CBC)

Many boroughs also have their own list of vacant buildings.

But when CBC obtained the fire department's master list through an access to information request and compared the lists, we found many buildings the boroughs have documented are not on the fire department's list.

That suggests a serious – and, for firefighters, potentially deadly – communication breakdown.

Chris Ross, vice-president of the Montreal firefighters union, does a visual inspection of a vacant building on St. Dominique Street brought to his attention by CBC. He said he was shocked to learn the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough hasn't shared information about this building with the fire department.

'Flabbergasted'

"I have to admit, I am flabbergasted," said the vice-president of Montreal's firefighters union, Chris Ross.

Ross always assumed that boroughs notified the fire department as soon as they'd added a vacant building to their list, so the fire department's own data could be updated.

"It's one thing that it's vacant, and no one has seen it yet," Ross said. "Then, you know, you can't really blame the employer, it's just something that wasn't noticed."

"But if the actual employer knows, then the left hand isn't telling what the right hand knows."

Tour of unlisted buildings confirms fears

CBC Montreal Investigates showed Ross several buildings found on borough lists that do not appear on the fire department's April 2016 list of vacant buildings. 

One of the buildings is an unused autobody garage in the Plateau–Mont-Royal borough, on Marie-Anne Street. It's on that borough's most recent list of vacant buildings.

This autobody garage on Marie-Anne Street has sat unused for years. It is one of several vacant buildings the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough is aware of that isn't on the fire department's list. (CBC)

The windows and doors are covered with graffiti. Through a broken window, Ross was able to peek inside.

The floor appear to be covered in piles of plaster that have fallen from the ceiling. 

At least half a dozen cars are still inside, as well as tires and barrels of what appears to be oil. 

"Definitely a high fuel load, if the cars have gas in the tanks," said Ross.

All the debris would make it hard for firefighters to move around inside if the garage was full of smoke, he said.

Through a broken window at this unused autobody garage, one can see what appears to be abandoned cars, tires and oil drums under a crumbling ceiling.

"If it's on a borough list, then there's no reason why it shouldn't have been sent over to the fire department so we could take a look at it and, at the very least, inventory it," said Ross, who pointed out the holes in the ceiling could classify the building as dangerous.

Campfire on roof

Across the street from the garage is another building that isn't on the fire department's list, either.

Scrawled with graffiti and long boarded up, the two-storey building's power and gas appear to be shut off. Ross also found evidence of a squatters' campfire on the roof that had burned through into the ceiling.

"There is no doubt this meets the vacant criteria for the firefighter department," said Ross.

There's evidence that squatters have had a campfire on the roof of this vacant building on St-Dominique at Marie-Anne streets. The fire burned right through to the floor below. With electricity to the building cut, no fire or smoke alarm would have sounded. (CBC)

The other buildings CBC showed Ross include the former Armstrong carpet factory off the Décarie Expressway and a dilapidated duplex in Côte-des-Neiges.

In each case, Ross felt the fire department should have been told about the state of the buildings.

"We've had unfortunate incidents in Montreal where firefighters have been killed in vacant buildings because when we arrived, we didn't know it was vacant," said Ross.

Death of firefighter 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)

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

Its unstable roof and walls collapsed on top of Lt. René Massé.

After Massé's death, major changes were made. Ross said the CSST, the province's workplace health and safety board, ordered the fire department to keep an inventory of vacant and dangerous buildings.

Every six months, firefighters are sent to check those buildings and note any changes. Any new buildings that are discovered throughout the year are immediately inspected and added to the fire department's list.

Once inspected, the firefighters in that district visit the buildings to become familiar with the risks they pose.

No working smoke, fire alarms

Vacant buildings are also more dangerous because the electricity has usually been cut, meaning there are no working fire alarms or smoke detectors.

"So the fire is going to get a lot bigger before anybody notices it," said Ross.

"It affects our response, as well," said Ross. "If you have a fire in a confirmed vacant building, we send more trucks on the first alarm."

No consistent borough policy 

CBC contacted all Montreal boroughs and found there is no consistent policy about how information is shared between each borough and the fire department.

Of those that responded to our inquiry:

  • Some told us it was the fire department which notified them of vacant buildings.
  • The borough of Mercier–Hochelaga–Maisonneuve claims it notifies the fire department as soon as it learns of a vacant or dangerous building. 
  • Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie said it doesn't get involved in the process at all – meaning it shares no list with Montreal's fire department.

Still other boroughs said a list is sent to the fire chief responsible for each district in the borough once a month or once a year.

Ross says that's unacceptable.

"It puts our members at risk," said Ross. "That would mean during that month or during that year, the employer knows the building is vacant, and they aren't transmitting the information to the fire department."

"It sort of defeats the whole purpose."

The borough knows about this building on St-Dominique Street at Marie-Anne, long boarded up and scrawled with graffiti, but the building isn't on the fire department's list.

A spokeswoman for Anie Samson, who chairs Montreal's public security commission, said any questions about the reliability of the fire list should be directed to the fire department.

Fire department blames sheer volume of buildings

The fire department initially refused an on-camera interview.

However, after an initial version of this story was published early Tuesday, the department's assistant director spoke to Radio-Canada.

Denis Doucet said it's hard for the fire list to be completely up to date, due to the sheer volume of buildings in Montreal.

He said while he's not diminishing the importance of the fire list, firefighters are now trained to do quick assessments of buildings and properly analyze the structure before they enter a burning building.


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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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