By Jennifer Cooper
During the summer of 2012, Whitchurch-Stouffville (Ontario) Fire Department fire prevention officers targeted businesses and apartments of the older downtown core in Stouffville as part of the departments’ annual smoke alarm program. As part of the program, the inspectors inspected all businesses and the apartments above them to ensure they met all fire code requirements, including emergency lighting, means of egress, portable extinguishers, and early warning systems such as fire alarms and smoke alarms.
During the implementation of the program, staff members were approached by the owner of one apartment building with a troubling problem. The owner said that his tenants were continually disabling or removing the batteries in their smoke alarms despite having it specified in each lease not to remove the batteries or disable the smoke alarm in any way. He also showed that he was being diligent in checking all smoke alarms on an annual basis. He said this continues to be a problem; since each time he checked the smoke alarms the tenants had removed the batteries or disabled the smoke alarm in some way, he requested the fire prevention officers’ assistance in dealing with the problem.
Staff completed a comprehensive inspection of the building and identified that five out of six smoke alarms in the apartments had been disabled. As part of the fire service protocol, the duty crew immediately installed new smoke alarms and batteries where needed, and five $235.00 tickets were issued to offending tenants who had disabled their smoke alarms in one form or another.
Of the five tickets that were issued, one tenant disputed the fine, which required the fire prevention division to attend court regarding the charge. The court ruled in the fire service’s favor, but reduced the fine to $175 as it was a first-time offense.
In October 2013, the Whitchurch-Stouffville Fire & Emergency Services responded to a call for a structure fire at the same location after a resident in the apartment building reported hearing the smoke alarm going off in one of the apartment units. He gathered his family to exit his apartment just as smoke starting coming in under the front door. He called 911 from outside the apartment building. He was the only resident in the building at the time of the fire.
When fire crews arrived on scene, heavy smoke was coming from a second-floor apartment. Fire crews entered the unit to find it was fully charged with black smoke. After extinguishing the fire, it was determined that the cause was two pots left on the stove. The resident was not in the apartment at the time of the fire.
If it wasn’t for the smoke alarm alerting the neighboring resident to evacuate his family and call 911, the outcome of this could have been devastating.
Although fire prevention and public educational programs can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, the fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to measure what we prevent, and it’s rare to actually see the results of a prevention or educational program. We know we are making a difference, we just never know who we have helped to safely escape or prevent from having a fire in their home or business.
Jennifer Cooper is a fire prevention and public education officer with the Whitchurch Stouffville Fire and Emergency Services in Ontario, Canada. Jennifer has been a career FPO/Public Educator for three years. Previously Jennifer was a firefighter and fire prevention officer with the Faraday Fire Department in Ontario. Jennifer is an Ontario Certified Fire Prevention Officer and is NFPA 1035 Level I and II Certified. Jennifer is currently working on her Certificate in Fire Service Leadership through Dalhousie University.