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Rights + Justice

New Questions Raised about Deadly Winters Hotel Fire

The former manager of a sister SRO says sprinklers and alarms should have been working if company policy was followed.

Jen St. Denis 16 Jan

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

A former SRO building manager says normal procedures for resetting sprinklers, alarms and fire extinguishers were not followed in the three days before a 2022 fire at the Winters Hotel that killed two residents.

After a small fire on Friday, April 8, sprinklers and alarms were left off and empty fire extinguishers were not replaced.

On Monday, April 11, another fire started shortly before 11 a.m. and quickly got out of control and spread through the building. Two tenants, Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay, were not able to escape and their bodies were found in the rubble of the building days later.

“Nothing was reset, nothing was done, and this wasn't just a one-night thing, this was three: Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” the former manager said. “That could have been done and should have been done the Friday night.”

The Tyee has agreed to keep the former building manager anonymous because she fears possible career repercussions for speaking out. The Tyee has verified her former employment by reviewing her job offer letter.

For nearly two years, she worked as the manager at a government-owned single-room occupancy hotel operated by Atira Property Management Inc., the same company that operated the 107-year-old Winters Hotel located at 102 Water St. APMI is a subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society, a non-profit organization that operates housing for women, transition houses and daycares.

She also frequently covered shifts at other APMI-operated buildings, including the Winters. A different fire systems company was contracted to respond to the building she was usually responsible for running than the Winters, but the former manager said the established procedure for both buildings was the same when it came to resetting alarms, sprinklers and fire extinguishers following a fire. At APMI, building managers are usually responsible for one building and report to directors who are responsible for overseeing several buildings.

Fires are common at SROs, century-old hotels that house some of Vancouver’s most marginalized people. They are usually put out quickly and are rarely fatal. Fires in SROs shot up sharply in 2022: the fire department responded to 312 fires in SROs 2021, and over 500 in 2022.

Many SROs, including the Winters, are operated as supportive housing for people living with mental illness, addiction or other challenges. While the Winters was privately owned, APMI received provincial government funding to operate the building as supportive housing.

The former manager told The Tyee that the three-day delay in resetting the sprinkler, alarm and fire extinguishers was unusual.

She said she was trained to call in contractors immediately to start working on any water or fire damage and to reset the fire alarm and suppression systems. In a past fire she dealt with at her building, which happened in the early evening, contractors were on site within an hour and the fire suppression systems were quickly reset.

That was also the procedure at other APMI-operated buildings when fires happened in her experience, the manager said.

After the April 8 fire at the Winters, the manager was on duty at her building.

“I asked my director, ‘What do you need me to do for the Winters?’ And he said ‘Nothing.’ He said the Winters manager is coming in tomorrow morning to take care of everything,” she said.

Vancouver Fire Rescue Services' investigation of the April 11 fire confirmed that staff and tenants attempted to use extinguishers to fight the fire, but they were empty or nearly empty because they had been used to fight the previous fire.

According to the investigation report, some fire escapes were inoperable at the time of the fire and sprinklers and the building’s alarm were not operational. The report determined the fire was accidental, caused by a tenant who had lit candles on their bed.

After responding to the April 8 fire, the fire department ordered the sprinklers and alarms to be reset, but did not order the fire extinguishers be replaced. It ordered that a fire watch be in place until the fire suppression systems could be checked and turned back on by a fire systems contractor.

The order was issued to an APMI employee at the hotel.

Multiple tenants and business owners who operated shops on the ground floor of the Winters have previously told The Tyee they were not told the building was on a fire watch.

They also said they did not see the regular patrols that are supposed to happen when a building is on fire watch.

However, the Vancouver fire department has told The Tyee the fire watch was being conducted at the time of the fire.

According to the Vancouver fire department’s investigation report, Royal City Fire Supplies Ltd. had been contacted by the building manager of the Winters “on the morning of April 11” and were scheduled to arrive “sometime that day” to service the alarm and sprinkler system.

Atira Property Management Inc. and Winters Residence Ltd., the owner of the Winters Hotel building, are being sued by one of the business owners who was affected by the fire.

Neda Pessione, the owner of a business called Nika Design, alleges in a statement of claim that “at all material times, Atira Property Management Inc. and/or Winters failed to follow the VFRS Fire Watch Requirements and VFRS Fire Watch Procedures.”

In its response to Pessione’s lawsuit, APMI denies all the allegations. It also says it was Winters Residence Ltd.’s responsibility to replace the empty fire extinguishers, restore the sprinkler and alarm system and “institute the proper Fire Watch procedures as set out in the VFRS Fire Watch Requirements.”

The response states that the owner “failed to institute and/or maintain an adequate Fire Watch patrol.”

APMI’s response also says that the building owner failed “to properly inform the occupants of the building that the sprinkler system and the alarm system was shut down” and failed “to properly train staff who were tasked with carrying out the Fire Watch.”

None of the claims in Pessione’s notice of civil claim, or APMI’s response, has been tested in court.

Pessione’s claim was filed on Aug. 15, but Winters Residence Ltd. has still not responded to the suit and did not respond for repeated requests for comment made by email, phone and an in-person visit.

Pessione is seeking “damages arising from negligence and breach of contract.”

The former APMI building manager who spoke to The Tyee also sent The Tyee a building rounds checklist from her building, showing that checking the condition of fire extinguishers was one of the things staff were supposed to be doing every time they did a regular walk-through of each floor.

The Tyee has previously reported on concerns about a lack of training for staff who work at APMI-operated SROs, leading to what workers described as dangerous working conditions.

The former building manager said she got little training when she started her job and was continually frustrated by the lack of training for the staff who worked under her.

The manager frequently covered shifts at the Winters Hotel and said many of the staff who worked at the Winters did not do building rounds properly or at all. She emphasized that the problem is not with frontline staff — who are often doing an incredibly challenging job — but with the organization’s management. She said she repeatedly reported the problems at the Winters to her director, but nothing ever changed.

APMI did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In response to a previous Tyee story that detailed concerns about the lack of training for frontline staff, APMI CEO Janice Abbott said that the company had improved training for staff by developing a series of training modules that staff could access using iPads.

The former employee said she is speaking out now because she left her job at APMI several months ago and the tragic deaths of Garlow and Guay have weighed heavily on her mind. The former employee was on duty at the time of the April 11 fire and said she worked continuously for the next 20 hours on the crisis response to the fire.

That included trying to determine which tenants were accounted for. The former employee told The Tyee that Atira staff soon realized that Garlow was missing, but remained unaware that Guay was missing. The Tyee first learned that Guay might be missing by speaking with several former Winters tenants.

Garlow and Guay’s families have concerns about the length of time it took to realize their loved ones were missing. Both were vulnerable people: Garlow was a 68-year-old residential school survivor who had lived in the Downtown Eastside for decades. Guay was deaf and may not have understood when neighbours tried to warn him to get out of the building.

In Guay’s case, staff at Union Gospel Mission, a shelter where Guay had previously stayed, reported him missing to police 15 days after the fire.

The former employee also wanted to highlight the work of the frontline building staff on the day of the fire and the staff who worked around the clock to support and find shelter for the displaced tenants.

“They did a really wonderful job,” she said.

A coroner’s inquest will be held to examine circumstances around the deaths of Garlow and Guay. The date has not been announced.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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