Bill Stewart recalls a 1995 North York high rise fire that killed six people as if it were yesterday.
“I can play this back in my head like it just happened,” Toronto’s fire chief says. “There’s an impact to something like this that stays with you. You really feel it.”
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The six — Stewart Scheinert, 35, Vivian Lam, 16, Maha Zabaneh, 29, Eileen Skakoon, 29, Joan Osborne, 35 and Eugene Florio, 33 — died in a stairwell after being trapped by thick smoke. The blaze started in a fifth-floor unit and quickly spread after the tenant fled. He had left his balcony and apartment doors open, creating a draft that fanned the flames of a catastrophic fire that raced through the 30-storey rental building near Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue.
At the time, then-North York deputy fire chief Al Speed called the blaze “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Stewart says there were a number of things, including a fire plan, that could have prevented or slowed the inferno’s steady march to destruction.
But he maintains the most consistently reliable way to prevent fire deaths is the same now as it was then: A simple sprinkler system.
Toronto’s fire chief is not alone in urging Ontario — the only jurisdiction in North America without such mandatory sprinkler legislation for high rises — require the systems in all new residential construction.
For years, there has been a cacophony of voices raised in support of the life-saving measure, particularly from fire officials such as Stewart and Ontario Fire Marshal Patrick Burke.
Burke says the statistics are clear and telling: Between 1997 and 2006 in Ontario, 920 people died in residential fires.
Since 1995, 89 people have died in residential high rise fires in Toronto alone.
In Vancouver, which has mandated sprinklers in all new residential construction since 1990, there has not been a single fire death in homes equipped with them.
Last month, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Ontario might soon require the systems to be built into all new high rise apartments.
While sprinklers have their supporters, there are also detractors, namely developers who say other safety measures are equally or even more effective.
Stephen Dupuis, chief executive officer of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), says he’s concerned the province might rush to judgment before a proper analysis of all the data is completed and a full public debate held.
“Do we make safety code by reaction in this province or do we make it with all the facts at hand?” Dupuis asks.
Association president Michael Moldenhauer said in a recent Toronto Star column that putting sprinklers in new homes hard-wired with smoke alarms is “redundant, expensive and misdirected.”
The call for mandatory sprinkler systems in Ontario was renewed after a spate of tragic fire deaths in Toronto in recent months.
McGuinty has called the province a “laggard” on the issue, compared with other jurisdictions that long ago made sprinklers mandatory in some residential construction.
Now, the premier has asked Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Jim Watson to look at legislation that matches the voluntary Canada Building Code, which calls for sprinklers in residential buildings of three storeys and up.
The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs applauded the move, but vowed to keep pushing for life-saving sprinkler systems to also be installed in new single-family homes.
Dupuis, however, says all a home really needs to protect its occupants is a working smoke alarm.
“If everybody would just get the smoke alarm system, that would do the job,” Dupuis says.
Fire officials disagree. They say smoke alarms are a good start, but often don’t warn people in time to escape a rapidly developing fire.