North

Polaris Apartments fire: Why aren't sprinklers in all apartment buildings?

Northwest Territories fire marshal Chucker Dewar has made it clear: a sprinkler system could have saved much of the Polaris Apartments, hit by a terrible fire last Sunday. But if that’s the case, why don’t all Yellowknife apartment buildings have sprinkler systems?

Sprinklers not mandatory in older apartment buildings, up to building owners to install

A blaze tears through the Polaris Apartments building on Sunday, June 14. N.W.T's fire marshal, Chucker Dewar, says a sprinkler system would have help saved part of Polaris. (submitted by Matthew Yap)

Northwest Territories fire marshal Chucker Dewar has made it clear: a sprinkler system could have saved much of the Polaris Apartments, hit by a terrible fire last Sunday. But if that's the case, why don't all Yellowknife apartment buildings have sprinkler systems?

The answer is a confusing mix of territorial legislation, city bylaws and "grandfathered" rules. This means sprinkler systems are not mandatory in older Yellowknife apartment buildings.

The Polaris Apartments did not have a sprinkler system and many other apartments built in downtown Yellowknife before the 1980s don't either.

That's when the city switched its bylaws and started making sprinkler systems a mandatory part of all newly built apartments buildings. The city law continues today. But it doesn't require older apartment buildings to add the sprinklers in.

To add to the confusion, the National Building Code of Canada says apartment buildings similar in size to Polaris (it had 17 suites) don't require sprinklers — a fire alarm is adequate. It's partially why Dewar feels like there's little he can do to get sprinklers into older buildings.

"In order for the fire marshal to apply a retroactive requirement for sprinkler systems, the requirement would have to be outlined in the National Building Code of Canada," he said.

"In [the Polaris Apartments] circumstance, it's not, so there's nothing to retroactively apply."

Dewar says retroactively mandating sprinkler systems into apartment buildings would require many consultations with engineers, developers, the construction association and others.

Not often installed in older apartments

In older buildings, it's largely the owners who decide whether to install sprinklers or not.

CBC News spoke to three local sprinkler installers Wednesday and asked them if they had ever put a sprinkler system into an older Yellowknife apartment building.

Only one had — Jim Mernickle, president of J&A Fire Protection. He's been in the sprinkler business 16 years and has only installed a system in an old, pre-existing apartment once. That was at Lanky Court Townhomes, after the building had been deemed unsafe.

Jim Mernickle has only ever installed one sprinkler system in a older apartment building — and that's after it was deemed unsafe. (CBC)

"Sprinklers [are] your first line of defence," he told CBC News Wednesday.

"If there's a fire in the middle of the night, the sprinkler head goes off, in all likelihood, it's going to put it out."

Mernickle says it's much easier to install the system while the apartments are being newly constructed, but that it is possible to install in an older building.

For a 20-unit apartment — a size comparable to Polaris — Mernickle figures it would cost between $90,000 and $120,000 to install sprinklers. Another local sprinkler installer ball-parked a much lower figure of $20,000 to $30,000.

Regardless of the cost, Mernickle is convinced it's worth it.

"The average sprinkler system pays for itself before the life of the building is over because of the savings in insurance costs," he said.

"How do you put a price on life?"

Northern Properties, the owner of Polaris Apartments, did not want to comment. 

Do you live in a Yellowknife apartment building that doesn't have a sprinkler system? We'd love to know. Contact haydn.watters@cbc.ca.

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