On Monday, in an interview with Public Eye, Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman said it was "absolutely not true" British Columbia's fire chiefs had safety concerns about the government's decision to allow taller wood-frame buildings. Instead, Minister Coleman stated, "The head of the B.C. fire chiefs actually wrote a letter saying that they didn't have the concerns." But that's not the case, according to Fire Chiefs' Association of B.C. president Stephen Gamble.
In fact, in his most recent letter to the ministry of housing and social development's building and safety policy branch, Mr. Gamble - acting in his capacity as chair of the province's fire services liaison group - acknowledged the Campbell administration's decision to require those buildings to have "fire-resistant exterior cladding, NFPA 13 standard sprinklers, and height limitation of 18 meters" is a "great start for public safety."
That being said, though, Mr. Gamble wrote the liaison group - which is comprised of the province's five fire service delivery associations - felt "after providing your branch with our concerns and attending the various meetings that were held, there are outstanding issues that we have not had a reply on" - such as who will be on the hook for the extra costs associated with equipping and training firefighters to respond to blazes in such buildings.
And he asked if the government would be implementing the group's "other recommendations such as non-combustible exit stair shafts, smoke control measures, and emergency generators to name a few."
Asked about the issue, Minister Coleman said the letter he was thinking of didn't come from Mr. Gamble, Port Coquitlam's fire chief. "My understanding is we have the support of the B.C. chiefs. I've talked to a number of them personally. And the ones in major communities say they have no problem with six storey construction. I've talked to a number of people in the fire services. They already know four storey construction works with sprinklers and two more storeys doesn't change much."
"There's different fire associations," he continued. "So I don't know which association (sent the letter). But I know he was the head of an association that sent me a letter. But it could be a misstatement. But the reality is we can do this safely. And we can. And we're not going to do it if we can't do it safely. But we've got to work through these details. But there are people out there every time you make a change that can't adjust their lives to change."
"I remember conversations years ago that you can't build high rises because our fire trucks won't go high enough. But, today, we have buildings all over the world that don't get fire trucks to the top roof," he added. "And the fact of the matter is with sprinkler systems and fire separation it is safe. So some people are actually resistant to change. And, often times, it's because they're stuck in a small area of the world rather than looking at the whole picture. And I can appreciate that. But we've always worked through these issues before. And we'll continue to do so."
The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned letter.
Fire Services Liaison Group
#9 - 715 Barrera Road
February 2, 2009
Roger Lam, Senior Policy Analyst
Building and Safety Policy Branch
Ministry of Housing and Social Development
Box 9844, Stn Prov Govt
Dear Mr. Lam:
Further to our conversation last week on the changes made to the BC Building Code to allow six storey wood frame construction, the Fire Services Liaison Group feel that after providing your branch with our concerns and attending the various meetings that were held, there are outstanding issues that we have not had a reply on.
The new Code requires sprinklering to NFPA 13, but the local governments have not been given the authority to implement sprinkler bylaws in their jurisdiction. There is no requirement for mandatory inspection of buildings in Regional Districts. The public should be assured safety no matter where the building is situated. We are awaiting a response to our request for consideration in the Code to the capability of the local/responding fire department. Fire services are a local government service and as stated previously, local governments have not been able to enact sprinkler bylaws. Therefore, who will be responsible for the costs of firefighter training, materials, and resources particularly in unorganized areas where buildings are not inspected?
The fire-resistant exterior cladding, NFPA 13 standard sprinklers, and height limitation of 18 meters are a great start for public safety, but the FSLG would like your branch to advise if you are considering our other recommendations such as non-combustible exit stair shafts, smoke control measures, and emergency generators to name a few.
Stephen Gamble, CFO, MIFireE
Cc: Office of Fire Commissioner
BC Professional Fire Fighters Association
Volunteer Firefighters Association of BC
BC Training Officers Association
Fire Prevention Officers Association of BC
Union of BC Municipalities