Although I don't particularly like Chief Beckett....

Fighting fires in the sky
Highrise proposals have West Shore departments taking a new approach

Bill Cleverley, Times Colonist Published: Sunday, February 11, 2007

Quick response, not ladder trucks, will be the key to fighting fires in highrise developments planned for the West Shore, say local fire officials.

Fire chiefs in Colwood, Langford and View Royal are hammering out an automatic-response agreement that will specify what equipment and personnel will be drawn immediately from all three departments if calls come in from specific buildings.

All three municipal councils have approved the protocol in principle. Details are expected to be worked out within months.

"One of the largest questions that council has had with these [highrise] proposals is: 'Does the fire department need a new aerial truck?' " Colwood Fire Chief Russ Cameron said in an interview. "The answer to that is 'No.'"

But it would need bodies -- lots of them. A kitchen fire on the 26th floor might have five people actually fighting the fire. But there would be a lot of them at the building.

"Aerial trucks are primarily designed for seven floors or below. Everything above seven floors is highrise and you have to go inside and go up, " Cameron said.

"It gobbles up personnel pretty quickly to make sure that perhaps those five or six people who are actually fighting the fire in an apartment are properly supported with what they need on the 26th floor."

Ground hasn't been broken yet for any highrises in Colwood, but several projects are planned.

Council has already given its blessing to a 29-storey tower near Royal Roads University. Three residential buildings of between 10 and 12 storeys are part of a subdivision near Esquimalt Lagoon.

A highrise hotel, and office and condominium towers are being proposed for Colwood Corners. As well, a residential tower of 41 storeys is proposed for Belmont Road near Colwood Corners. Two highrises are being built at Bear Mountain in Langford. All these come after Langford has firmly established itself as home to the capital region's big-box stores.

Cameron is the man behind the automatic-response initiative. It's prompted not just by highrises on the horizon but by big and complex buildings already here, such as the big-box stores, Victoria General Hospital or seniors' care facilities.

Automatic response is different from the mutual-aid agreements the departments have been using for years. Under mutual aid, a house-fire call, for example, would see a local department respond. If the fire department finds the blaze is beyond its capabilities, it calls for help.

Under automatic response, everything is predetermined, said View Royal Chief Paul Hurst.

"The incident commander or the officer in charge of the truck doesn't even have to think about it. The bells go off and those [pre-determined] resources are sent immediately."

Hurst says that's key in a business where passing minutes have an exponential effect on success or failure.

"It's a documented fact that, basically, a fire doubles in size every minute."

He explained that under a mutual-aid arrangement, getting extra help for a significant fire in a complex structure could take as much as 10 minutes.

"I would much rather arrive at the scene and turn around and have 30 firefighters standing behind me saying 'what do you want me to do?'"

View Royal and the Langford Fire Departments have aerial trucks equipped with 32-metre ladders capable of reaching about seven storeys. Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett said the trucks are useful for battling blazes in large buildings where firefighters need to get hoses up high to pour water onto a fire.

"The Costcos, the Home Depots, the Ronas, they all have an impact because of the need for an elevated hose stream," Beckett said. "There's a bit of a misconception that the ladder trucks are used solely for highrise, but they have limitations. You're not going to perform a rescue from the 15th floor externally with a ladder truck."

Beckett pointed out new highrises are designed to keep fires small. They would have:

- Full sprinkler systems

- Good fire compartmentalization, the theory being fire will not get beyond the suite of origin

- Stand-pipe hose connections on every floor that fire hoses can be hooked into

- Smoke-control measures where positive pressure or negative pressure can be applied to help keep stairwells and corridors free of smoke.

"In comparison to an older four-storey, fully combustible, multi-family dwelling, you could argue the point that a highrise concrete building with new technology is a relatively safe building to be working in," Beckett said.

Photograph by : Darren Stone, Times Colonist
View Royal firefighters practise techniques with a ladder truck in a parking lot at Thetis Lake.
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