Ottawa·Q&A

Fired up: Why Ottawa's deputy fire chief wants builders to use less flammable materials

Ottawa Fire Services deputy chief Sean Tracey spoke to CBC Ottawa about the challenges of fighting fires in modern residential buildings and the training being done in Ottawa to better educate firefighters.

Sean Tracey of Ottawa Fire Services says the city can become a hub for firefighter training and fire research

Two volunteer firefighters were injured when they fell through the floor of this home at 24 Snowberry Way. (Scott Stilborn/Ottawa Fire Services)

As the Ontario Fire Marshal's office investigates the cause of a Stittsville house fire in mid-April that left two firefighters with significant injuries, questions remain.

Could the injuries — caused by the firefighters falling through the home's floor — have been prevented?

Was there something about the building materials that made the fire's progress unpredictable?

Ottawa Fire Services deputy chief Sean Tracey spoke to CBC Ottawa about the challenges of fighting fires in modern residential buildings, as well as the training being done in Ottawa to better educate firefighters.

The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you begin focusing your training on modern building materials?

We received project funding for $1.2 million dollars from Defence Research Development Canada. And under this project, we were going to prepare a national-level curriculum that addressed modern fires, how contents affect modern fires [and] structures, and to provide a curriculum that could be used across Canada.

We have trained representatives from all of the provinces and territories in Canada, and this modern curriculum will give building blocks or tools that fire services can use to train their firefighters pn how fires grow. 
Deputy fire chief Sean Tracey.

Have all fire services across the country upgraded their training as a result?

Unfortunately not. The problem is that there's such a demand for training that we have to put our firefighters through — and a lot of us have such little time. So even a department like Ottawa ... it might take us approximately three years to transition, get this knowledge out, get all this training out to all of our career and rural firefighters.

What are some examples of modern contents and building materials that you have to deal with?

What we see with modern residential construction is that we've introduced light-weight trusses, silent floors, these pre-engineered floor systems. What they are is one-inch-by-one-inch dimensional lumber. Whereas before, what you had was a solid two-by-10 that would hold up the floors.

Well, what science is showing us, from (National Research Council) testing, is that these floors burn through in as little as six minutes from direct exposure to a fire. And that's about the same time that our firefighters are actually getting set to go in and try to put these fires out.

These floors burn through in as little as six minutes from direct exposure to a fire.- Deputy fire chief Sean Tracey

So how do you deal with that?

There are new tactics we need to consider. Thermal imaging cameras. Awareness of how long you're operating above a fire. All of these things just make the modern building fires actually more dangerous, more costly, and more impactful. And we need to be playing catch-up on building construction standards and their modern content.

How do you deal with manufacturers whose products are getting more flammable? 

It's a constant battle that groups like the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Firefighters are battling. And they're actively involved in the code's development process.

We are always vigilant to try and maintain and keep those standards of fire safety protected in the codes. But unfortunately, we have to battle and prove our case with science and research against technology, the building industry, who are trying to make homes more cost effective. So it's a constant battle and an exercise in vigilance. 

What are some products that worry you?

Spray-foam insulation. We're spraying liquid gasoline into our homes ... If that spray foam heats up, it liquifies and then gets the same burning rate as gasoline.

There are always these introductions of new technologies, new practices that look at energy efficiencies, cheaper and more efficient means of construction, sound proofing. But in many cases, they don't have to be tested for how they perform in a fire.

Are you satisfied all the firefighters across the city are getting the training they need?

Absolutely. We believe we have the best trained and equipped composite fire department in North America. And that's been our vision, and we make sure we have safety systems in place for this.

But that does not mean that we can't do things better, more efficiently, and more safely. And so that's why we look at getting and incorporating this research that we have led with. We should be leaders.