Fatal fire in Thornbury prompts heat sensor, smoking proposals

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A smoke alarm sounded, probably for hours, before someone pulled a fire alarm in the hall and and called 911 about a fatal Grey County housing apartment fire in Thornbury on Dec. 15, Grey County housing director Rod Wyatt revealed Friday.

That delay, and concern raised by firefighters that careless smoking may have caused the December fire as well as one in a county-run apartment building next door last July, prompted Wyatt to propose heat detectors be put in all 716 apartment units in 25 county-run buildings. Those sensors are installed in public areas such as hallways in those buildings.

It would cost at least $600,000 and take years to install the heat sensors, but the proposal was well received by the county social services committee this week and will be followed up with a more detailed report before the committee’s approval is sought, Wyatt said in an interview.

The committee also requested a report about making Grey County housing smoke-free, given careless smoking safety concerns and ongoing complaints about cigarette smoke from non-smokers, Wyatt added. Current tenants who smoke would be grandfathered but new tenants who smoke would be subject to a fine.

Smoke detectors in each county housing apartment unit can be set off by cooking or even a hot shower, so they’re not linked into the alarm system that automatically notifies the fire department and sounds alarms in the halls.

But heat detectors, which sound once temperatures reach a certain threshold, would be linked to the building’s alarm system, reducing delays in notifying the fire department and better protecting the county’s increasingly “vulnerable” tenants, Wyatt said.

“Then you don’t have to rely on a tenant to notify you if something’s going on in an individual apartment.”

Wyatt identified about a third of the tenants at 81 Bruce St., the building where fire claimed one life, as “vulnerable” due to mental health, addictions or disability problems. Wyatt said these people may be less capable of reacting quickly to call 911 or pull an alarm in the event of a fire.

“We figure it was going off for a number of hours,” Wyatt said of the alarm in the unit where the victim’s body was found. “And we certainly saw over a period of an hour tenants going to the door, hearing it and going away.”

The victim died of smoke inhalation.

“If the fire alarm had been pulled when the first tenant heard the smoke alarm going off, we would have saved a lot of damage to the building,” he added.

Firefighters who responded encountered “extremely high heat,” deputy-fire chief AJ Lake said in an interview after the fire.

He also voiced frustration that people are “not listening to fire alarms.”

There were still people on balconies and walking around hallways of the two-storey, 36-unit building when the main alarms were going off, he said.

Three fires in a span of eight months — two in Thornbury and one at the Alpha St. complex in Owen Sound — in county housing is “extremely unusual,” Wyatt said in his report.

After the second fire, which sent one person to hospital as a precaution and displaced two others, fire officials recommended installing heat sensors in the apartment units, not just in the hallways. Then the third fire happened.

An elderly tenant named Peter Parker is believed to have died in that fire, fellow tenants there have said. Fire, smoke and water damage also rendered eight apartment units uninhabitable for months. The fire started in Parker’s unit and he is the only tenant Grey County housing department staff were unable to contact after the fire.

Police haven’t yet confirmed the identity of the deceased person.

In the Alpha Street fire three townhouses were heavily damaged.




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