Open flame problem settled at Moss Park's overdose prevention site

The province, Toronto Fire and volunteers at Moss Park's overdose prevention site have reached a solution to allow drug users to continue using open flames in a new heated tent set up last week, CBC Toronto has learned.

New fire prevention plan says flames cannot be used near combustible material, compressed oxygen

The military-grade, all-weather tent erected by the province's Emergency Medical Assistance Team at the Moss Park overdose prevention site. (John Grierson/CBC)

The province, Toronto fire and volunteers at Moss Park's overdose prevention site have reached a solution to allow drug users to continue using open flames in a new heated tent set up last week, CBC Toronto has learned.

Ontario's Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT) erected the military-grade tent on Thursday after it was requested by front-line workers to help keep the site functional through winter. 

On Saturday, however, EMAT informed volunteers that the use of open flames to either prepare drugs for injection or smoke a substance poses a danger to both drug users and health-care providers.

At the time, volunteers and activists said the crackdown on open flames rendered the heated tent "useless," and forced people using the service back out into the cold. 

Despite the setback, EMAT has drafted a revised safety plan that will "strike a balance between saving lives and keeping people safe," according to Toronto Fire Deputy Chief Jim Jessop, who added that the newly drafted agreement includes recommendations proposed by the department's fire prevention specialists.

Harm reduction workers, EMAT and Toronto Fire have agreed to a new safety plan that includes a number of a recommendations from the city's fire prevention experts. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The plan includes a provision that open flames will not be used near any combustible material, Jessop said. Similarly, if volunteers are using the compressed oxygen that's kept on the site for medical purposes, open flames must be a lit a minimum of three metres away. 

Any lighters used in the tent must be the disposable variety that go out if they are dropped on the ground, as opposed to refillable butane torches or similar flame sources that can be lit without direct contact. 

Toronto Fire will also provide at least one additional fire extinguisher to the tent, which, according to volunteers, already has one extinguisher. 

Further, EMAT will provide special training for a number of front-line volunteers. 

"With them agreeing to the recommendations, we really had no fire safety issue with them continuing on with their work," Jessop told CBC Toronto. 

Toronto fire Deputy Chief Jim Jessop said that the revised approach was needed to ensure that volunteers at the site could continue to work with the community safely. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Moss Park volunteer Sarah Ovens says the development is welcome news, adding that drug users will be able to start using the tent Tuesday night. 

"That plan that they are presenting us with includes a number of different safety precautions that are precautions that we were already taking anyway," she told CBC Toronto. Though it's not impossible to train all of the volunteers at once, they will be progressively brought up to speed on the plan as they rotate through shifts at the site, she explained. 

The insulated tent, equipped with a generator for the depths of winter, went up as an interim measure as the federal government considers a request from the province to operate the site indoors at the nearby Fred Victor Centre.

Ovens said the front-line volunteers were clear about what the tent would be used for right from the beginning. They were frustrated when the province then clamped down on open flames two days later.

The province's EMAT is a mobile unit typically deployed for community evacuations or mass-casualty events. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

It was just the latest instance of officials responding inadequately to the needs of the community, she said.

"This open flame thing came up on Saturday, so it was one thing that had to be solved. Now that it's solved, we definitely still don't feel like all of our needs have been met by what the province has given us so far," Ovens said, pointing out that the single winter-proofed tent is not big enough to accommodate the demand volunteers are seeing. 

"They've given us one tent, so it still leaves a lot of our folks out in the cold."