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A call for balcony sprinklers in four-storey buildings

Firefighters bring a victim to a waiting B.C. Ambulance crew during the Paddington Station fire in Langley City. - Taylor Sinclair/Submitted Photo
Firefighters bring a victim to a waiting B.C. Ambulance crew during the Paddington Station fire in Langley City.
— image credit: Taylor Sinclair/Submitted Photo

Langley City Council is calling on Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for housing, to issue a ministerial order requiring sprinklers on the balconies of all new wood-frame four-storey multi-unit residential buildings, effective immediately.

While Coleman has said the provincial government plans to add a requirement for sprinklers on the balconies of four-storey wood-frame apartment buildings when the B.C. Building Code is next updated, that may not happen for another year or two, a report to council from City fire chief Rory Thompson (pictured) said.

Thompson, RoryCouncil unanimously approved the call at the Feb. 6 meeting.

The Thompson report said one in five City apartment building fires start on balconies, usually because of improperly disposed-of smoking materials.

Since 2007, the report said Langley City Fire Rescue Service has responded to 80 apartment fires that caused millions of dollars in damage, 11 injuries and one fatality.

Of these apartment fires, 16 were fires on balconies, 11 of them caused by improper disposal of smoker’s material.

That was the cause of the Dec. 11 fire at the four-storey wood frame Paddington Station building in Langley City that did an estimated $14 million of damage.

Once a fire penetrates the balcony ceiling, it is directly into the attic space, Thompson said.

That's a problem because the B.C. Building Code does not require fire separations between the ceiling of the top floor balconies and attic spaces.

The Thompson report said most apartment roofs are constructed using light-weight truss construction that starts to fail after five to 10 minutes of flame exposure.

In the Paddington Station fire, firefighters had the balcony fire knocked down from the exterior within five minutes of arrival, Thompson said.

"However, the first attack team into the apartment of origin reported heavy fire conditions already in the attic space."

The report notes that the National Building Code (NBC) requires the installation of sprinklers on balconies on four-storey buildings.

The NBC is a model building code issued by the National Research Council of Canada which has no legal status until adopted by regulators.

Thompson also cited a study by Surrey fire chief Len Garis and Dr. Joseph Clare on fire reports provided by the B.C. Office of the Fire Commissioner, which found roughly one in 10 multi-residential building fires originate from an outside area, either an exterior balcony or "court/patio/terrace area."

Fires that commence on a building’s exterior were 5.5 times less likely to activate a smoke alarm and 1.4 times more likely to require visual sighting or some other means of personal detection the study found.

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