Earlier, we reported the National Fire Protection Association's Canadian regional manager Sean Tracey and British Columbia's fire services liaison group chair Stephen Gamble raised serious safety concerns about the government's decision to allow taller wood-frame buildings. But, in a news release distributed last week, Surrey Fire Chief Len Garris stated, "the concerns people have about the fire safety of taller wood buildings come from a lack of information about how fires behave and about how buildings are constructed to protect people and limit the spread of fires."
Asked about that statement, Mr. Garris told Public Eye, as a former volunteer and now full-time fire chief, he's been to "dozens and dozens of fires" in three and four storey wood-frame buildings - most of which start in the kitchen and don't require a lot of resources to extinguish.
As a result, Mr. Garris questioned whether it's necessary to provide extra training to firefighters so they can tackle blazes in wood-frame buildings that are just two storeys taller. "What would be different? Because we know that, typically, the fire is going to be out when we get there - all we need to do is climb another two floors," he said.
Moreover, Mr. Garris said the installation of sprinklers in such buildings means smoke control measures - which were recommended by the fire services liaison group - aren't needed. "Since the adaptation of sprinklers, smoke control is no longer used because sprinklers control the smoke," he explained.
And he stated the 100-year-old, six storey hotels in Vancouver that have been converted into social housing are an example of how such buildings are safe. "They were largely wood-frame construction and they've been upgraded with sprinklers. And we don't see those things falling down and we don't see them burning down...So we don't have to look very far to say, 'We've probably had these things around an awfully long time.' And during those eras, those buildings weren't built to anything close to what we might be building them today."
So why are Messers. Gamble and Tracey concerned five and six storey wood-frame buildings are unsafe? "If you read between the lines, I think Steve is probably representing the organization as a whole," said Mr. Garris - referring to Mr. Gamble's position as the president of the Fire Chiefs Association of B.C. "That organization is largely populated by volunteer fire departments that probably have very little experience with what I just described to you. They haven't had similar experiences or had the opportunity to have the experiences in order to draw the same conclusions."
For his part though, Mr. Garris said the majority of fire safety experts he's spoken with (including the Surrey's fire safety engineers) support five and six storey wood-frame buildings - which will, according to him, be cheaper to construct and stimulate the forest industry. "So I just think it's a win, win, win, win all the way around." After all, he said, "The government didn't just pull (this decision) out of the air and say this is it. There was a process for it."