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2022 Was a Deadly Year for SRO Fires in Vancouver

The city will fund a new tenant-focused safety program after hundreds of fires and five deaths.

Jen St. Denis 2 Feb 2023TheTyee.ca

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

Vancouver council has approved $110,000 to fund a pilot project to help improve fire safety in single-room occupancy hotels, following an alarming increase in fires in 2022 that was responsible for five deaths.

But the pilot project won’t run in publicly owned hotels or any of the buildings that are privately owned but operated by non-profit housing providers with provincial funding.

Instead, the project, managed by the SRO Collaborative, will run in 18 buildings that are either privately owned and run or operated by Chinese Benevolent Association. A fire safety co-ordinator will train tenant leaders on fire safety, help tenants create safety plans for the building and help them learn to advocate for themselves and their neighbours. The goal, the SRO Collaborative said, is to build up capacity and experience to extend the program in future.

“It doesn’t take away [the responsibility] from managers and owners… but it does tap into the tenants’ self-interest to take more responsibility and contribute to solving this problem,” said Wendy Pedersen, an organizer with the SRO Collaborative.

The worst SRO fire to happen last year occurred on April 11, 2022, at the Winters Hotel. The privately owned hotel was operated by Atira Property Management as supportive housing with funding from BC Housing. Two tenants, Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay, died in the fire and 161 people were displaced. The building was so badly damaged it had to be demolished.

But that was just the start of a horrific year for SRO tenants. There was a total of 223 fires in SRO buildings in Vancouver in 2022, more than double the number of fires in 2016.

In addition to the two deaths at the Winters, Shayne Charleson died at the Hotel Empress in June after an e-bike battery exploded and he fell from a window. One person died in a fire at Carl Rooms at 375 Princess Ave. and another died at Oppenheimer Lodge, a retirement home at 450 E. Cordova, according to information provided by Vancouver Fire Rescue Services.

Fire chief Karen Fry said half of all fire-related deaths in the city happened at SROs in 2022.

Last year over 400 tenants were displaced from their homes because of fire or water damage from sprinklers. The fires affected privately owned and run SROs like Keefer Rooms at 218 Keefer, and buildings run by non-profit housing operators as supportive housing, like Sereenas Housing for Women at 143 Dunlevy.

SROs are century-old hotels that feature small rooms with shared bathrooms and no kitchens. The buildings house some of the most marginalized people in the city, and tenants are often struggling with poverty, disabilities, chronic health problems, mental illness and addictions.

The majority of the fires were accidental and were caused by tenants or guests, according to Vancouver Fire Rescue Services. At a city council meeting on Jan. 31, Fry said that it was important to stop tenants from smoking in their rooms. She suggested there should be a focus on creating ventilated smoking rooms or helping residents transition from cigarettes to vaping or encouraging smoking cessation programs.

In some cases, the fires are being caused when the heating systems in the buildings are broken and tenants are trying to keep warm. In the past few years there have also been more fires being set on the outside of the buildings, Fry said.

Vancouver Fire Rescue Services saw a steep increase in fire alarms in SROs in 2022. Crews responded to 2,900 alarms last year, up from 723 in 2016. Smoking triggered the majority of those alarms.

The fire at the Winters Hotel was caused by a tenant burning candles unattended in their bed. Sprinklers and alarms were off at the time of the April 11 fire because they had not been reset after a previous fire days earlier, and fire extinguishers were also empty from fighting the previous fire.

Dennis Guay, one of the tenants who died in the fire at the Winters, was deaf and his neighbours believe he may not have understood their calls to leave the building. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may need adaptive technologies like vibrating or flashing lights in place of auditory fire alarms. Atira Property Management has not responded to previous questions from The Tyee about whether such a system was in place for Guay.

Coun. Peter Meiszner asked what the city is doing to ensure that tenants who have disabilities are being equipped in case of fire.

“That was a big concern around some of the challenges that tenants are facing,” said Monika Czyz, a housing planner with the city who worked with the SRO Collaborative on the fire safety program.

“Part of this initiative is to… build those peer-to-peer relationships and identify the tenants that might need some extra attention or support — issues with mobility or being hard of hearing or other kinds of additional challenges that they face that would put them more at risk in the event of a fire,” Czyz said.

Deputy fire chief Rob Renning said firefighters do install strobe lights or other systems when they become aware of a tenant who needs an alternative to an auditory alarm, but that’s currently done on a one-off basis. Fry said there is no law or regulation that makes those systems mandatory for deaf tenants, but it’s been a concern for a long time.

“I've seen this question come up lots over the years, and it's something that we need to be able to do to make fire safety a priority for everybody,” Fry said.

“Everybody should have equity in their resources for fire safety.”

Fry said the fire department has been reaching out to non-profit housing operators to encourage them to take extra training offered by Vancouver Fire Rescue Services.

But even after the deadly Winters Hotel fire, uptake has been slow, Fry said. It’s only been recently, after pressure in the media and the fire department speaking with staff at BC Housing, that housing operators have started sending their staff to training.

In future, Fry said, the fire department hopes that training will become a mandatory annual requirement for all staff who work in SROs.  [Tyee]

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