A coroner’s inquest that began on the 3rd anniversary of a fatal East Gwillimbury fire that took the lives of the Dunsmuir family and concluded on the 4th anniversary of a fatal Whitby fire in which three teenagers died, has resulted in recommendations for sweeping changes to provincial fire investigation, education and safety initiatives.
Our partner Aliza Karoly represented the families of Holly Harrison, Marilee Towie and Benjamin Twiddy, the three teens who died on April 29, 2012 at 917 Dundas Street West in Whitby.
At the inquest, the jurors heard evidence about realistic fire response times, the actions of 911 fire call takers, and fire inspection procedures for renovated rental units. The jurors also heard from a landlord that disregarded his obligations under the Fire Code by not placing fire rated drywall where ordered and fire investigators that did not have written record of this landlord’s compliance or lack thereof. The landlord was previously convicted of Fire Code offences and had the drywall been in place, the tragic deaths were entirely avoidable according to the Fire Marshall.
The Office of the Ontario Fire Marshall presented a shocking video demonstrating how in four minutes, without taking action, anyone will succumb to the heat and toxins of a fire. In reality, a fire department will not be able to begin a rescue for 8-12 minutes.
This inquest taught a roomful of lawyers, reporters, court staff, jurors and family members that every individual should be taught that calling 911 and waiting for a rescue from a fire is not going to save your life. Self-rescue will save your life and occupants should develop fire safety plans as to how to get out of a home in case of fire. Or in absolute worst case scenario, learn the best way to shelter in place and self-protect if you are unable to escape. 911 fire call operators can play a vital role by providing this advice in the future (with proper training).
Although not an issue in the Whitby fire, having working smoke detectors in multiple areas on multiple levels will save your life. So will a carbon monoxide detector. Surprisingly, the inquest also heard that cleaning the lint trap in a dryer does not mitigate the chance of a fire. Homeowners have to clean out the vents that link the dryer to the outside because of buildup of lint which is more significant and more dangerous than the small lint trap on the top of one’s machine.
At the inquest, the jurors were allowed to ask questions of the witnesses and were exceptionally attentive, intelligent and thoughtful in their engagement throughout the process. This resulted in excellent recommendations.
In plain language, the recommendations include:
- Educating the public about fire safety risks in “accessory apartments”, such as basement apartments, and other rental units whose landlords may not have complied with the Fire Code.
- The tenants of non-compliant landlords should be informed by mail of the non-compliance of their unit.
- The development of a provincial red-flag registry of landlords with a history of non-compliance and/or convictions under the Fire Code. Fire investigators should have these landlords and units on their radar for ongoing inspection.
- Fire investigators must not take the word of a landlord but must visually inspect a unit for proof of compliance.
- Educating high school students and young adults living on their own for the first time (the most likely tenants of rental apartments) about fire safety. This includes age appropriate information and incorporating fire safety promotion and activity into high school mandatory volunteer hours.
- Disseminating to the public in the strongest possible way: GET OUT AND STAY OUT if a fire breaks out in your premises.
- Collaborate with insurance companies to promote awareness and use of working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.
- Municipalities should promote the installation of clear house numbers so emergency services can find your address.
- Have a province wide integrated 911 call and dispatch system so every service sees and receives the same emergency information from a caller.
- Promote the use and installation of sprinklers in new-build residential homes.
- A regulation should be passed requiring mandatory and standardized certification and training for fire inspectors, fire personnel providing public education and fire call takers and dispatchers.
- Amend the Fire Code to address interior finishes in stairways that lead out of the unit. The interior finish should be fire rated drywall to ensure the occupants best chance of escape.
- Research changing the Fire Code to promote two forms of egress (exit/escape) for all accessory apartments.
A copy of the verdict of the coroners jury and the coroners verdict explanation from the inquest into the deaths of Holly Harrison, Marilee Towie, Benjamin Twiddy, Kevin Dunsmuir, Jennifer Dunsmuir, Robert Dunsmuir, and Cameron Dunsmuir can be viewed here.