Fires up more than 13% in Toronto amid COVID-19 pandemic, firefighters union warns

The union representing Toronto’s firefighters says it's seen a 13.4 per cent increase in fire calls since this time last year, something it says is the result of more people staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

13 firefighters tested positive for COVID-19, many others staying in hotels to protect families

Toronto Fire responds to a call at a three-storey row house on June 2, 2020. (Evan Tsuyoshi Mitsui/CBC)

The union representing Toronto's firefighters says its seen a 13.4 per cent increase in fire calls since this time last year, something it says is a result of more people staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Toronto Professional Fire Fighters' Association says careless, unattended cooking as well as careless smoking, like flicking cigarette butts from condo balconies, are the two main culprits.

"These are all preventable fires and ... the key here is to make sure that we're doing everything we can to prevent the emergency from taking place," said Frank Ramagnano, the association's president. 

The consequences have proven deadly. Ontario has already seen 68 people die this year as a result of fires — a 66 per cent increase over this time last year, according to the province's fire marshal.

Frank Ramagnano, president of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Association, says people need to be more careful while cooking and smoking at home during the pandemic. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

While firefighters are warning the public to be more careful, they're also saying the dramatic increase in calls is putting a strain on them. Ramagnano says they have to take extra precautions during the pandemic and are also concerned the city may cut funding in the coming years due to budget pressures. 

"One of the things I think the City of Toronto's done well, especially the mayor, is he's listened to experts when it comes to what to do with COVID-19 ... What I would ask is that he remembers that."

With more residents at home for the foreseeable future, the union is reminding people to practise fire-safe behaviour, including not leaving food unattended while cooking as well as disposing of smoking materials with care.

 It's also asking residents to regularly check their fire and carbon monoxide alarms to ensure they're working correctly.

Fighting fires during a pandemic

Ramagnano says although firefighters are trained to deal with high-pressure scenarios, the pandemic has taken a toll on members.

"The stress with worrying about your family ... also the unknowns of the situation you're going into," he said.

"We always ask the question, 'Is there people home?' and the answer right now is always yes. So that adds another layer of danger and concern for our firefighters." 

There are several changes at fire halls, including deep cleaning at the start and end of every shift. Crews changing shifts also barely see each other, Ramagnano says. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)

Ramagnano says they haven't always been comfortable with the amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) they've had, but they've made contingency plans in case it runs out.

"It's still awfully tight," he said. "One of the things that we're fortunate of, because we do fight fires, we have a self-contained breathing apparatus system, which is probably the best PPE you can get."

Dan Vieira — chair of media relations with the union and a firefighter with Station 312 on Yorkville Avenue — agrees the pandemic has presented some challenges.

"It's definitely changed the routine around the hall, obviously. It's also brought a heightened level of stress and vigilance amongst the members," he said.

As for the increase in fire calls, Vieira says he has also noticed an uptick as a result of people spending more time at home.

"Someone just forgetting their pot on the stove or discarding the cigarette carelessly off a balcony and igniting someone else's balcony on fire," he said.

Dan Vieira says Torontonians can't get complacent in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Dan Vieira)

With the pandemic ongoing, emergency personnel don't have the option of experiencing "COVID fatigue," Vieira says, so he's hopeful residents don't become complacent.  

Some firefighters aren't even going home, but rather staying in hotels to ensure they aren't putting their families at-risk, Ramagnano says, as they have attended calls where they later found someone had tested positive for COVID-19.

So far, 13 firefighters have come back with a positive case.

All of them have since returned to their work, but like many who've dealt with the novel coronavirus, Ramagnano says the recovery wasn't easy.

"Some of them had a difficult time with it … We saw some members that barely knew that they had it, and two weeks later they were fine.

But others, he said, were sick for "two to three months."

Fire chief looking at possible 20% cut

An added concern for Ramagnano is the financial shortfall the City of Toronto finds itself in due to the pandemic, and what impact it may have on Toronto Fire's resources.

On Tuesday, city council looked at projected COVID-19 financial pressures and discussed the options required if the city doesn't get adequate support from the federal and provincial governments.

Ramagnano says Chief Matthew Pegg has been asked to look at different scenarios, including what a 20 per cent cut to operations would look like, "which is approximately the loss of 500 firefighters."

Pegg could not immediately respond to CBC Toronto's request for comment.

Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, who also serves as the city's head of emergency management, says the response to COVID-19 has been robust, responsive and responsible. (CBC)

Meantime, Ramagnano is asking for residents' help. He says if firefighters are at your home or your building, wear a mask.

He also advises families to practise their own fire drills. 

"If you live in an apartment or you live in row housing, sometimes you can do everything right, but your neighbour hasn't and it's going to have an effect on you."


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