Do you stay or do you go? What to do when there's a fire in your high-rise building

What should you do if you live in a high-rise building and there's a fire? Toronto Fire Services explains why and when you should stay in your unit.

Be warned there will be no Hollywood high-rise helicopter rescue

A high-rise fire on The Esplanade on Jan 20, 2016. (John Rieti/CBC)


  • This story was originally published in February 2017.

If you look at Toronto's skyline, what you see is one condo building after another.

Inside many of those high-rise structures are residents who have no idea how to react in the event of a fire.

"I've often wondered about that myself ... because I live on such a high floor," said Philip Whitfield, who lives on the 36th floor of a building on Brunet Court near Spadina Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard.

"I look out and I think, "Well, you're not going to get out the window. You're not going to get out.' I mean, there's no real escape."

'You could have just saved my life.' says Philip Whitfield after finding out he was misinformed about what he should do in the event of a fire (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

If the fire alarm goes off he knows to check the door for heat, before opening it to leave. 

But if he made it to the stairway only to find smoke coming up, this is where he would make a potentially fatal error.

"Naturally, you'd think you'd want to get away from the fire. So maybe you want to go up higher in the building?"

Big mistake, says Toronto Fire District Chief Peter Derrington. 

"With heat, smoke is going to rise to the top of the stairway. You have to stop, come back, get into your suite. Shelter in place," Derrington told CBC Toronto.

Peter Derrington of Toronto Fire Services says if there's a fire in a high-rise building 'you do not go to the roof. We can't get people off the roof with helicopters." (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

Derrington, who is with the Toronto Fire Services public education division, says if the fire is in your unit, get out and close the door behind you.

Duct tape can save your life 

If the fire is elsewhere in the building and you can't get out right away, your unit is the safest place to be.

Close the door and keep the smoke out, Derrington says.

Then, get a wet towel and roll it up. "You're going to place it at the bottom of the door," he said.

"You want to block that air circulation because that's where the smoke is going to come in. Then you have the very handy duct tape and you can start ducttaping around the door frame and just seal it up."

The next step is to get on the phone. Call 911 and let them know that you can't leave your suite.

Amalia Duncan, who lives on the sixth floor of a condo building on Capreol Court, west of Spadina Avenue and north of Lake Shore Boulevard, was surprised to hear that.

'I feel like they don't really educate people on fire safety in buildings that much,' says Amalia Duncan who lives in a downtown condo building. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

"I feel like if you close your door and go back to the apartment and the fire gets crazier, wouldn't you just be stuck in your apartment?" she asks.

Derrington says buildings are designed with fire-resistant materials that keep the flames from spreading quickly from one unit to another. 

"One hour fire separations in the walls and two hours between floors," he said.

Meanwhile, in that time fire crews are working to put out the flames and get everyone out.

Vertical response time

In 2013, Toronto Fire Services started tracking what it calls vertical response times. 

The clock starts from when the first crew of firefighters arrives at the high-rise building, to when they reach the site of the emergency. 

In 2016, the response time was between five minutes and one second to five minutes and nineteen seconds.

"We know of cases where firefighters will be on the scene and there are people wandering the hallways and there's smoke in the hallways," says Derrington.

High-rise fatalities and injuries

According to Toni Vigna, the division chief for policy, project and public information, high-rises are not tracked as a building type.

However, in an email to CBC Toronto, she said Fire Services was "able to estimate the number of fires at high-rise buildings using a combination of response code and other data." 

In 2015, the "estimate of high-rise fires" was 430, with two fatalities and 59 civilians injured. 

The report has not been finalized for 2016 but preliminary data show there were approximately 471 fires in high-rise buildings, three deaths and 57 people injured. 

'A Hollywood myth'

"People have died trying to evacuate through smoke-filled hallways and stairwells," Derrington said.

If your escape plan includes trying to make it to the roof, don't even think about it. It's a deadly mistake.

"That's a Hollywood myth, Derrington said. "We don't have helicopters. We cannot rescue people off the roof."


Makda Ghebreslassie

CBC Toronto reporter

Makda is a CBC Video-Journalist, who from time to time fills in as TV news anchor and a newsreader on Here and Now and Fresh Air. She worked in newsrooms in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Windsor before moving back home to Toronto.