Firefighters delayed by inconsistent access to burning buildings
Efforts to extinguish a fire on the 10th floor of a Burnaby highrise were briefly delayed earlier this month because firefighters didn't have access to a working elevator key.
Fortunately, no one was injured and crews were able to douse the flames before they spread to any neighbouring units, but firefighters did have to lug their equipment up the stairs to reach the two-alarm blaze.
"Going up 10 flights of stairs is a pretty good workout in this heat," Asst. Chief Erik Vogul of the Burnaby Fire Department said at the time.
The incident highlights an issue many firefighters in Metro Vancouver encounter on the job, whether responding to fires, alarms or medical calls: inconsistent building access capabilities.
Gord Ditchburn, president of the B.C. Professional Firefighters Association, said access methods vary from municipality to municipality and property to property, which sometimes leaves crews scrambling as the clock is ticking.
"You're pressing multiple buttons on a buzzer system to try and get somebody to let you in the building, and when you do gain access you're looking for fobs, you're trying to gain access from an elevator, you're trying to get through doors and a stairwell. It can create problems and time delays," Ditchburn said.
One access method involves lock boxes where keys or any devices needed to gain entry to main areas and elevators are stored. In Alberta, the boxes are a standard fire code requirement for certain buildings, but only some cities in Metro Vancouver have bylaws requiring them.
Richmond Fire-Rescue discontinued its voluntary lock box program in 2004 after some of the boxes were broken into, giving thieves access to buildings. But Chief John McGowan said access challenges have led the department to reconsider that decision, and the program is being relaunched in the city.
Beyond elevators and front doors, lock boxes provide access to "critical infrastructure" that allows crews to shut off natural gas and electricity when necessary, McGowan added.
The department is also looking at high-tech solutions, such as electronic lock boxes that firefighters can control with a smartphone app. Such devices can cost around $1,000 to purchase and install, but McGowan said it can quickly pay for itself.
"If we have to break down one door that's probably well over $1,000 through the insurance to get that fixed and repaired, so you start to see some very good returns on investment putting this type of system into your building," he said.
The B.C. Professional Firefighters Association said it plans to speak with the province's fire commissioner about standardizing access requirements.
With files from CTV Vancouver's Maria Weisgarber