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Canada Ontario superjail revamps fire-safety plan after series of false alarms

The Toronto South Detention Centre has been subject to controversy over some of its fire-safety practices, such as delaying or cancelling calls to Toronto Fire due to high numbers of prank alarms.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario's flagship superjail is overhauling its fire-safety plan as it deals with a rash of prank fire alarms and an investigation into a 2015 blaze that sent five employees to hospital.

From January through May of 2016, Toronto Fire crews rushed to 71 emergency calls from Toronto South Detention Centre – almost one visit every two days, according to a Toronto Fire spreadsheet obtained by The Globe and Mail.

"TSDC is currently working with the Toronto Fire Service to review the fire safety plan," Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Greg Flood confirmed in an e-mail. "Training initiatives and updates to the plan should be implemented this fall."

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The Toronto Fire figures offer yet another entry in the catalogue of maladies that have plagued the $600-million institution since its January, 2014, opening.

As previously reported in The Globe, the facility, which remains well below its 1,650-inmate capacity due to staffing issues, has been beset by a series of design flaws leading to shattered windows, cracked floors, malfunctioning cell doors, glitchy computer hardware and damaged locks.

While the province says it has addressed many of these issues, the fire alarms have been sounding with ever greater frequency.

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Since the jail opened, Toronto Fire has dispatched trucks to Toronto South 143 times. Only four of those calls stemmed from actual fires. Another 44 came in for medical emergencies. The remaining 95 emergency responses were attributed to malfunctions, accidents and "Malicious intent, prank," with 33 such calls coming in the first five months of this year alone.

Explanations abound for why the new jail is using so much of the municipal fire department's resources. The union local representing guards and other correctional officers alleges that, unlike other jails, sprinklers and alarms at Toronto South have been placed within easy reach of aspiring vandals.

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"They decided to place this stuff above the sink," said Sheldon Small, first vice-president of OPSEU Local 5112.

"Now [inmates] just climb on the toilet and then up on the sink and break the equipment. They are constantly breaking them. And every time they do, a call goes out to Toronto Fire."

Other inmates have figured out that blowing powdered milk into the smoke-detection equipment triggers an alarm.

In previous years, the jail's fire plan authorized managers to cancel internal alarms before Toronto Fire could be notified, according to the province. These alarm cancellations became so routine that in 2015 facility administration failed to report several actual fires to the fire department, according to the union.

In a December, 2015, letter to the Ontario minister in charge of correctional services, Mr. Small cited four separate fires that flared up inside the walls of Toronto South without Toronto Fire being notified.

The Toronto Fire spreadsheet confirms no crews were dispatched at the times Mr. Small gives for the fires.

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"The administration at TSDC is either incompetent or just completely callous," Mr. Small wrote to then-minister responsible Yasir Naqvi. "They have not learned from past incidents and continue to put lives here … at risk."

The most serious of these fires came on Dec. 2, 2015, according to the letter. Between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. that winter day, disgruntled inmates set four separate fires. Despite the severity of the flames, management decided against calling firefighters.

That approach changed only when a fifth fire appeared around 2 p.m. "I understand that this time the flames reached approximately 5 feet," Mr. Small wrote. "The area became so black with smoke that officers could not see out the module (officer station) … staff that did attend were extremely concerned for their safety."

Inmates in the smoke-affected area "began to plead with officers to be rescued."

Correctional staff eventually snuffed out the fire, but smoke circulated throughout the building. At 4 p.m., a staff member three storeys above the blaze came down with smoke inhalation. Only then – six hours after the first spark– was a call made to Toronto Fire, according to the letter. "Due to the amount of staff that needed emergency care, an on-scene EMS supervisor called for additional help," Mr. Small wrote.

Four officers and one sergeant were transported to hospital.

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The episode remains under investigation by Toronto Fire Service and the province.

Even so, Toronto Fire says it has no issue with Toronto South. "These are challenging institutions," Deputy Chief Jim Jessop said. "We work very collaboratively with all community safety and correctional services staff. They are very proactive. We have a positive, collaborative relationship."

Mr. Jessop was skeptical of any allegation that prison management may have cancelled or delayed calls to Toronto Fire. "I would be shocked if supervisory staff with the ministry somehow bypassed the fire-alarm system," he said. "And I would not believe it would."

A ministry spokesman, however, confirmed the practice. "Prior to the December 2, 2015 incident, TSDC's fire plan allowed for a short window in which the alarm could be investigated by staff before the fire service was called," Mr. Flood said. "If there was no fire situation, the alarm would then be reset by the institution's management. Following the incident … the procedure was changed to immediately summon the fire service in an alarm situation. This has resulted in a sharp increase in false alarms."

Indeed, fire crews now visit Toronto South with such regularity that staff say it has raised a new safety concern. When a fire alarm sounds, elevators in the seven-storey facility freeze on the bottom floor, impeding staff response time to any emergencies in the sprawling facility.

"You have this new $600-million facility that's absolutely riddled with malfunctioning equipment," said MPP Rick Nicholls, who has toured Toronto South as the Progressive Conservative corrections critic. "One of these days someone is going to get seriously hurt and maybe even killed. Is that when the ministry is going to step in? These warnings have been coming for a long time."

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