Burning down the house

The Calgary Fire Department will be heating things up at the SAIT campus this fall in an effort to let students know about the dangers of fire in unsafe suites.

The CFD’s Burning Down the House event will feature two eight feet by eight feet fully-furnished “dorm-room” style cubes built by the CFD being lit on fire.

“The fire takes about two minutes before it burns the whole cube up,” said CFD public information officer Brian McAsey, “and even firefighters, whenever they have these things, everyone oohs and ahhs when it reaches the flash-over.”

The flash-over is when all materials in the room reach their ignition point and light up at once. McAsey said it’s this effect that kills more fire fighters than anything else.

“We just set a small fire in a wastebasket,” said McAsey. “People are pretty amazed how fast these things light up.”

“Within three minutes of an active fire in your house, you’re not going to survive,” said McAsey. “We used to have a 20 minute response time rule, nowadays we have an eight minute rule.”

McAsey said that a high number of all college student deaths are caused by fire, a reason that the event is targeting those that might have fire safety as the last things on their mind.

The program, taking place September 29 in participation with all major post-secondary institutes in the city, is in response to the death of three young people last year.

On January 26, 2009, authorities received a call in Parkdale about a basement fire.

“One of the residents was able to call 911, she had a cell phone but she wasn’t sure about the address as she had just moved in,” said McAsey. “We knew the general area where she was and we actually arrived within just minutes.”

Fire fighters saw no obvious smoke or fire until they entered the house and found four unconscious young people lying on the ground. CPR was performed on the lawn, reviving all four, though three died in hospital of smoke inhalation.

“Every breath you take is going to be burning your respiratory system,” said McAsey.

The basement they were living in had barred windows, which they were unable to remove during the blaze. The one exit was inaccessible and the only smoke detector wasn’t working.

The fire was caused by a space-heater given to the renters by the landlord after they complained several times about a faulty furnace.

“As a consequence of that we have three dead young people,” said McAsey. “Those people all could have walked out of that building alive if the proper precautions were in place.”

Lisa St. Pierre, who lost her 19-year-old son Jonathan in the blaze, will be speaking at the event about the dangers of unsafe living conditions for students.

“The more awareness the better, I don’t want to see any other family go through this,” said St. Pierre. “Smoke detectors have come a long way and if they are used the way they should be there’s no reason for anyone to die in a fire.”

McAsey said having people affected by the blaze speak at the event will help bring home the reality of a house fire.

“Jonathan, the way he died, trying to pry the bars off the window, trying to help the people around him as they were trying to phone out for help, it breaks my heart,” said McAsey. “Talking to these people it changes the reality of it, it’s not, ‘Oh, it’s just some fire, some people died’ to ‘Oh, my god I can’t believe this happened.’ “

McAsey wants to let renters know that they have rights, especially young people that might be moving away for the first time.

“My son was only 18 when he was trying to find a place to live,” said St. Pierre, who noted that a lack of available housing was perhaps responsible for her son moving into an unsafe location. “He was pretty much begging to find a place to live.”

McAsey said the lack of affordable student housing can make many people feel powerless to confront landlords over problems in their suite because of the false perception that they can be kicked out.

“They’re not at the mercy of the landlord,” said St. Pierre. “I think that’s what my son felt after looking at his e-mails to that landlord. They were just happy to have a place to live and they felt like they were at his mercy.”

“Landlords can’t just kick you out, they have to go through a long legal process,” said McAsey. “They can’t just arbitrarily keep your damage deposit and if they do threaten to do so, there are means of redress.”

The CFD suggests that anyone who believes they may be living in unsafe conditions call 311 to complain. Investigators will be sent to the location to examine flaws and, if any are found, immediately issue a directive to the owner that these code violations must be repaired within 35 days. Those that choose not to make the improvements are brought to court and fined or jailed.

“In the case of this owner, unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of recourse,” said McAsey. “Calgary Police service didn’t charge them with any criminal conduct or neglect. However we charged them on seven counts [of code violation] and they were found guilty on all seven counts.”

Students can also defend themselves by being aware of fire regulations when moving into any new location. A working, hard-wired fire detector located within 15 feet of every living area on every floor is a must. Every room also needs two exits. Barred windows are not allowed in any residential suites, except those that can easily removed without a key or lock. McAsey also recommends that students test that they are able to escape by window.

“A fire is a bad time to be testing to see if you can boost yourself up and get through there and if it’s big enough for you,” said McAsey. “Having all of these things in place is vital. It’s also important to have tenants’ insurance.”

Although the department doesn’t work with any particular insurer McAsey recommends strongly that all renters take out coverage as he has seen too many people left with nothing after a fire.

Henry Blumenthal, vice-president and chief underwriter for TD insurance, said renter’s insurance is something that many people don’t think about until it’s too late. He recommends that students investigate their options to make sure their valuables and themselves are protected.

“Fire might be the most expensive and severe loss one can suffer,” said Blumenthal. “What we see more in Canada is students have more expensive contents, so you just want to make sure you’re protected.”

Blumenthal said that basic packages for students will cost anywhere from $150-$200 a year with coverage of $15-$20,000 for contents and liability.

“Ten to 15 years ago you needed a broker to inspect and meet face to face,” said Blumenthal. “Not anymore.”

The CFD’s Burning Down the House event is the first of its kind in Canada and offers free lunch to the first 500 people to arrive at the SAIT field for the 12:30 p.m. start time, September 29.

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