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Task force aims to make small apartment buildings safer

Dan Wilson is a captain of the fire prevention task force that will be taking an inventory of all the wood frame walk up apartment buildings in New Westminster to rate them for their fire safety. The task force was formed in the wake of a fire in January that destroyed an apartment building on Ash Street. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Dan Wilson is a captain of the fire prevention task force that will be taking an inventory of all the wood frame walk up apartment buildings in New Westminster to rate them for their fire safety. The task force was formed in the wake of a fire in January that destroyed an apartment building on Ash Street.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

The fire that destroyed an apartment building on Ash Street in January has sparked a task force to prevent such a conflagration from happening again.

New West fire chief Tim Armstrong said the eight-member task force will visit each of the city's approximately 500 wood frame walk-up buildings. Their task is to take an inventory of their age, construction, general condition and state of fire safety. The full tour should take 18 months.

He said such an effort was already in the works, but the Ash Street fire gave it more urgency.

"Ash Street was an example of how quickly this type of construction can get away from you in a fire," said Armstrong.

A special agreement with the firefighters' union will allow the task force to be on duty seven days a week. They will also make appearances at community events and provide public education.

New West Coun. Chuck Puchmayr praised the creation of the task force at a recent city council session.

"Anything you can do to give those tools to firefighters is very positive," Puchmayr said.

Puchmayr had called for the federal and provincial governments to find a way to help the owners of older buildings retrofit with sprinkler systems.

Most of New West's rental buildings went up in the 1950s and '60s, long before building codes made sprinklers mandatory.

Armstrong said forcing owners to install expensive sprinklers is unrealistic. Instead, the task force will help them address fire safety issues. They will look for renovations that have compromised fire barriers, and will help building owners upgrade alarms and install smoke detectors.

The fire department will also partner with the New West police and the city's building and bylaws departments to ensure owners comply.

"This is a more reasonable and affordable approach," said Armstrong.

Each building will also get a fire safety rating, ranging from poor to very good. That will then be compared to its history of calls to the fire department to give it more gravity when dealing with the owners.

"Sometimes you really have to push," said Armstrong.

All task force data will also be added to the city's files. This will let the fire department know a building's floor plan, where standpipes are, and whether hazardous materials are on site.

"The more information we have the better," said Armstrong.

He said the fire department's job at such buildings is more complicated because they're not airtight. That means there's more oxygen available to fuel the flames.

Also, these buildings tend to have a higher percentage of elderly and disabled tenants.

"The key is to get in there quickly and make a quick assessment," said Armstrong.

 

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