Over 1,100 fires in SRO buildings in Vancouver over the last seven years

Jan 30 2023, 8:15 pm

Startling statistics have been provided by the City of Vancouver for the total number and frequency of fires within single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings.

Between 2016 and 2022, Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services responded to a total of 1,164 structure fires in SROs, with the number of incidents escalating in 2019 and continuing throughout the pandemic.

For the first three years of the mental health and opioid overdose crisis, the number of fires hovered consistently at slightly over 100 incidents annually. This spiked to 169 incidents in 2019, 202 incidents in 2020, 254 incidents in 2021, and 223 incidents in 2022.

Of these fire incidents, 70% were the result of “smoking materials” and the mishandling of lighters, candles, and matches, while 5% were electrical and battery-related, and 9% were kitchen related.

The conditions of these buildings greatly contribute to the significant fire risk, including the age of the building, many of which are about a century old with outdated or damaged fire suppression systems. Some buildings have poor heating systems, which has led residents to keep themselves warm with other methods that increase the risk of fire. Heavily cluttered tenant rooms also greatly contribute to the risk.

Fires in SROs accounted for 11% of all fires in Vancouver in 2022, up from 7% in 2016.

A total of eight structural fires in 2022 temporarily or permanently displaced a combined total of over 400 residents, including the deadly fire that completely destroyed the Winters Hotel SRO in Gastown.

As for the causes of fire alarms over the same seven-year period, the City’s fire officials reported over 12,100 alarm responses to SROs. The number of SRO fire alarms has grown from 723 incidents in 2016 to 2,897 incidents in 2022.

Fire alarms in SROs requiring a fire rescue response accounted for 22% of all alarms in Vancouver in 2022 — an average of nearly eight per day, up from two per day in 2016. Most of the causes of fire alarms in SROs in 2022 were the result of cigarette smoke (57%), followed by 13% for cooking, and 30% for various other factors.

Fire rescue officials have maintained that the surging number of SRO calls has had an immense financial and resource impact on their crews. All alarms require a fire rescue response, which typically entails two fire trucks and eight firefighters for SROs.

To this end, City of Vancouver staff are seeking Vancouver City Council’s permission to enact a pilot project to help reduce the labour and financial strain on the fire rescue department.

City Council is expected to approve this week a $110,000 grant to the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative Society to fund a “tenant-led” fire safety pilot project in 18 SRO buildings — 10 buildings operated by the Chinese Benevolent Society and eight privately-owned buildings — with a combined total of about 740 tenants. Each of these 18 buildings would have one lead tenant working with fire rescue officials on fire prevention, safety, and response, including training on conducting weekly fire safety checks in common areas and proactively flagging fire safety issues.

The pilot project — running for one year starting in March 2023 — will also consist of distributing multilingual fire safety pamphlets to 2,000 SRO rooms, creating building maps for each building, and organizing annual fire drills.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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