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Firefighters face increasing peril as vacant death traps proliferate Add to ...

A lone figure wearing a backpack was caught on surveillance cameras entering the historic Empress Hotel building before the massive blaze early Monday morning which gutted it, The Globe and Mail has learned.

The information is part of the Toronto Police-Ontario Fire Marshal investigation into the six-alarm fire that at one point saw two Toronto firefighters fall from the roof of an adjacent building into the very heart of the inferno.

While two crews on ladder trucks directed water onto the fallen men to keep the flames at bay, the department’s RIT squads – rapid intervention teams whose sole job is to save their fellows when they are in trouble – lowered water-filled hoses the fallen men held onto while their colleagues hoisted them to safety.

Although the two were later discharged from hospital with minor injuries, theirs was a shockingly close call and a grim reminder that many Canadian cities and their fire departments are ill-prepared for an onslaught which may be just around the corner.

In the United States, fires in vacant buildings such as the structure at Yonge and Gould Streets in downtown Toronto account for fully 75 per cent of firefighter deaths.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, which two years ago released an alert about the issue, 96 firefighters across the U.S. died, and another 106 were injured, at “structure fires” between January, 1998, and February, 2007. Fifty-four of the 71 fires occurred in unoccupied buildings, accounting for 72 of the 96 deaths and 94 of the 106 injuries.

As a reminder of the veracity of those statistics, just before Christmas two Chicago firefighters died, trapped when a wall and roof collapsed in a fire at an abandoned building on the city’s South Side. The building had been vacant for years, the gas and water turned off, but firefighters feared squatters might be inside and went in after them.

It is one of the awful, split-second decisions firefighters have to make all the time – as the NIOSH bulletin put it, will “we risk our lives a lot, in a calculated manner, to save savable lives” or “a little” to save savable lives, or not at all “for a building or lives that are already lost?”

But fires in vacant buildings render those decisions all the more difficult “because of all the unknowns,” said Fred LeBlanc, president of the 11,300-member Ontario Professional Firefighters Association and a Kingston firefighter.

Arriving crews may not know if the building has fire protection or standpipe systems and if they’re disabled; if the utilities are on or off; if the floors are compromised; if the exits and entrances are boarded. In addition, Mr. LeBlanc said, in these situations crews don’t even get witness reports from “people running out to give us details” about where the fire started.

Crews may be left with only rumours or sightings of squatters who often light fires for heat or light. Such reports may be inaccurate, but with a reactive group like firefighters, whose instincts and training are to rush toward danger as others flee it, it may be enough to propel them into peril.

Ironically, even the one measure fire departments and North American cities routinely require – the boarding up of abandoned buildings – not only may fail to dissuade squatters, but also poses an impediment to firefighters running out of air or trying to get out.

“There’s a high probability [in these situations] that firefighters will become disoriented or trapped in these [vacant] buildings,” Rob Simonds, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the chief in Saint John, told The Globe in a telephone interview.

While dilapidated urban cores and desolated downtowns have been widespread in some American cities for years, their Canadian counterparts have been spared until recently, with Toronto in particular long proud of its vibrant inner core. But the economic slowdown has begun to be felt across Canada, especially in towns and cities in Ontario, the country’s former industrial heartland.

Among the key recommendations in the NIOSH bulletin was for fire departments to become pro-active about risk management – conduct regular inspections of vacant buildings; enter that information into the dispatch computer so responding crews get it; work with other agencies to identify unoccupied buildings.

Yet there isn’t even a central data-collecting agency for fire statistics in Canada, and only a few municipalities where fire departments are even attempting the shift from a reactive – if frankly heroic – traditional model to a pro-active one.

Niagara Falls, Ont., where more than 25 per cent of structure fires in the city occur in vacant buildings, is probably furthest along that path. Using the Ontario Fire Code as the hammer – it says “Vacant buildings shall be secured against unauthorized entry” – the department works with local police to find unoccupied buildings, immediately inspects them, orders them secured – and then vigorously prosecutes owners who fail to comply. Just last month, the Ontario Divisional Court upheld one such order on a vacant building.

As Deputy Chief Jim Jessop told The Globe in a phone interview, his department has prosecuted more than two dozen cases, won fines of as much as $25,000 against owners, received the okay to demolish seven buildings, and, with a number of larger abandoned factories and warehouses, forced owners to take and pay for extraordinary measures such as installing security fences, removing all combustibles and cementing entrances.

The situation which galvanized Niagara Falls was the last fire at a vacant house in the city in 2004. There had been others, but, Deputy Chief Jessop said, the department handled the case in the traditional way, what he called, “Board up, speak to the owner, and wait for the next fire.”

That came after the place had been turned into a crack house by squatters. Firefighters were crawling over 6,000 dirty needles and pulling them out of their gear afterwards.

But Hamilton, has taken perhaps the most sweeping approach. Two years ago, the city created a “vacant building protocol,” where abandoned properties were regularly inspected. Within a year – stung by the demolition of a historic theatre – the city moved to give its protocol bite.

On Oct. 13, city council passed a “vacant building registry bylaw,” which requires owners of any property vacant for 90 days – residential, commercial or industrial – to register it with the city for a fee. The intention, Marty Hazell, senior director of parking and bylaw services, “is to pro-actively monitor the buildings on our list once every three months” to protect them from deterioration “and ultimately encourage re-use or occupancy.”

In addition, on the same day, council approved asking the province to review legislation which makes the owners of vacant commercial or industrial buildings eligible for municipal tax rebates. This legislation dates back to 2001, and city officials believe that in addition to the costs – counting the educational portion, Hamilton rebated more than $3-million in 2009 – the rebate program acts as a disincentive to downtown renewal.

The plague of abandoned homes isn’t confined to large urban areas. Chief Simonds said his department is now working with Saint John council towards taking a Niagara Falls-type approach. “If we have a line-of-duty death, it will be too late,” he said.

With a population of 130,000 in the Greater Saint John area, the fire department already has tracked 101 vacant buildings – many small tenements –and integrated the information onto its database. “This is absolutely the way of the future,” he said. “As stewards of public safety, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of this situation.”

Part of the difficulty is that with the gap in national data collection, neighbouring municipalities may be operating in the dark about new initiatives taken just down the road. Chief Jessop was completely unaware what Hamilton, for instance, has been doing. The two cities are just 45 minutes apart.

But as Chief Jessop said, push come to shove, “It’s going to be our guys there on their hands and knees in the heat and the smoke and the darkness. It’s not going to be a building inspector or someone from public health.”

Toronto, where the old Empire Hotel is no more, doesn’t have a vacant building registry of any sort. Nor do officials, said Blair Hawkins, senior communications co-ordinator with the city, have an estimate of how many empty structures there are in Toronto.

But the city processes about 2,100 vacancy tax rebate applications a year – though, Mr. Hawkins cautioned, that number includes entire buildings and buildings with vacant units.

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