On the cold winter night that my 24-year-old sister, Frances, last lay down to sleep, she never realized that she had spent her last day on earth.
In all likelihood, it won’t occur to you either.
That was back in 1985, when Sarnia had only three fire stations. Today we have five – and more, and better trained firefighters. So – you probably think that you’re safer from fire than Frances was, all those years ago.
But you’d be wrong.
Frances lived in the 300-block of Davis Street – about a three minute response time from East Street Fire Station. As fire department response times are measured province-wide, that’s excellent. But by the time that Sarnia Fire Rescue arrived at my sister’s home, she had already been dead for about one minute. Two minutes is all it took for the fire that ignited from the wiring in her walls to reach 1,150 degrees and to produce the thick, black cloud of carbon monoxide that stole her young life.
Frances died in an unprotected home – it had no smoke detector. Later that year, smoke detectors became mandatory in Sarnia homes. You almost certainly have at least one in yours. But, as Sarnia Fire Rescue’s Mike Otis will tell you, there’s more to it. Mike can tell you about all the times that Sarnia firefighters have entered the charred, blackened ruins of a home to find dead bodies guarded by smoke detectors with dead batteries.
Last month, we sprang forward to Daylight Savings Time. That’s when firefighters urge the public to check the batteries in their home smoke detectors.
Did you check yours? If not, you’re rolling the dice every time you lay down to sleep – just like Frances did.
Four hundred people die in Canada every year from fires, and most of them occur between midnight and six a.m. Sarnia Fire Rescue began 2018 by responding to 14 structural fires in January alone.
Worse, today’s house fires burn faster and hotter than they did 33 years ago. And – the fumes that they generate are far more toxic than the ones that killed Frances in about two minutes.
Six years ago, my wife and I moved into a brand new townhouse. The kitchen, dining room and living area are contained in an open-concept design. New technologies in lightweight, engineered roof trussing permit home builders to construct custom homes that offer 30 feet of open floor space.
But Sean Tracey, an Ottawa deputy fire chief and Canadian director of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), says that the new designs pose hazards to homeowners and firefighters alike.
“A truss roof can collapse in six minutes,” Tracey said, adding that some home builders may not be fully aware of the increased fire hazard.
“The reality is,” Tracey adds, “that none of these truss designs are actually tested for their fire performance and there’s no requirements under building codes for how they perform in a fire.”
Modern home furnishings, from couches to carpets and from drapes to mattresses, are full of fast-burning synthetics. Thirty years ago, you had about 15 minutes to escape a fire. Now – it’s down to less than two minutes.
Tracey, like many professional firefighters, thinks one answer to the increasing hazards lies in home sprinkler systems. Common in commercial buildings, they are still a comparative rarity in Sarnia homes.
Part of the problem is that home sprinklers are misunderstood. Unlike smoke alarms, they are activated by heat, not smoke from burning toast. Usually, only the sprinkler closest to the fire is activated, and they use 1/8th to 1/10th the amount of water that would be used by firefighters.
Home sprinklers can control a house fire in its early stages, as firefighters are responding.
The cost? Well, it’s certainly far less a burden than the irreplaceable loss of Fra
But Barry Hogan of HUB International (formerly Gamble Insurance – Sarnia’s oldest home insurer) says that sprinkler systems in Sarnia homes are still unusual. Barry believes that the cost/benefit ratios are not only misunderstood by the public, but even by some home insurers.
The statistics, however, are impressive. According to the NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, fires were kept from spreading beyond the room of origin 97% of the time when home sprinklers were present.
Those numbers represent a significant saving in lives.
As my friends at Sentry Fire & Safety Services say, when it burns, it never returns.