You seldom hear about the fire that was prevented, but these unheralded moments are our greatest source of pride. This requires more than just the hard work of our firefighters and fire inspectors; it requires a commitment from everyone in the community. The fire education programs of Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service (VFRS) are making a difference in the community by teaching residents about the important role they play in keeping their families and the entire city safe.
Alarms for life program
Imagine a car with no gas or a restaurant with no food – they’re about as useful as a smoke alarm with a dead battery. Through our annual Alarms for Life Program, VFRS aims to remind residents about the importance of having working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms.
The program takes place every weekend between May and the end of Fire Prevention Week, which runs from October 6 to 12 this year. Vaughan firefighters go door to door visiting the homes on the assigned streets to check for working smoke alarms/carbon monoxide alarms and give homeowners our fire safety messages. If no one is home, we leave an educational notice at the home to remind residents about our fire safety campaign. Last year, VFRS visited 3,497 homes during the Alarms for Life Program. This year, we plan to continue to spread the word to help ensure homes in Vaughan are properly equipped.
Residential fires are responsible for 73 per cent of all fatal fires in Canada each year. I believe that by educating citizens and inspecting homes, VFRS is working to lower the risk of death and harm from fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Far too often, our firefighters enter homes that have mounted smoke alarms, but the battery is not operable. It is a good idea to replace the batteries in your alarms when you change the clocks in the spring and fall, and test them monthly. Smoke alarm placement is also an important aspect of fire safety. Your smoke alarm comes with manufacturer’s recommendations on where to install it, when to replace it and how to maintain it. Those instructions should be followed to ensure alarms remain the most effective. Early detection and early warning to people inside the home is critical to survival, so proper alarm placement and maintenance are essential. A whole community is at risk if the alarms in just one home are not in proper working condition.
In order to standardize the message provided to the resident, we focus on these key fire safety messages:
- Smoke alarms are required on every level of the home and outside all sleeping areas.
- Carbon monoxide alarms are required to be installed near the bedroom areas in your home.
- Replace smoke alarms every 10 years.
- Replace carbon monoxide alarms every five to seven years, as per manufacturer instructions.
- Change your batteries when you change your clock times – in the spring and in the fall.
- All alarms have a test button. Push it at least once per week to ensure the alarm is in good working order and the batteries are working.
- Remove dust and other airborne debris by lightly vacuuming alarms.
This year, VFRS modified its Alarms for Life Program by using historical data to identify and target higher-risk homes. Based on a calculated assessment of risk using GIS data modelling, we have found a correlation between faulty smoke and CO detectors and homes built 10 to 12 years ago. As a result, the program this year will include specific targeted streets of homes that were built between the years 2006-2008 with the goal of reducing the overall number of faulty detectors in Vaughan.
Smoke alarms wear out, regardless of the type or quality. The failure rate can be very high after a unit is more than 10 years old. CO alarm sensors can also deteriorate and lose sensitivity over time due to environmental conditions. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says that all smoke alarms need to be replaced every 10 years, and, depending upon the manufacturer, all CO alarms need to be replaced every five to seven years. Knowing that CO and smoke alarms have a limited shelf life, the working hypothesis was that homes which are approximately 10 to 12 years old may still contain the original builder installed alarms, which are now beginning to fail.
The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) data was used to query homes built between the years 2006-2008. MPAC is the largest assessment jurisdiction in North America and is responsible for accurately assessing and classifying more than five million properties in Ontario. This makes it a great source of information related to a city’s building stock. The relevant MPAC data (approximately 9,000 homes) was then geocoded and mapped using ArcGis Online. To determine if there was a pattern between false smoke/CO alarm calls and the age of the home, the individual points representing homes were converted into a density map. This was done to more clearly demonstrate where clusters of these homes were built.
False smoke/CO alarm data for the past five years (2014-2018) was mapped, with a density analysis conducted for each individual year of call data. Any calls in which a smoke or CO alarm functioned properly (even if it was just for burnt toast) were excluded, as they indicated a properly working alarm and were thus not relevant to our study. Once our different maps were overlaid, it was evident that there was a similar pattern between the MPAC data and the pattern of false alarm calls.
Finally, streets that had already been inspected through the Alarms for Life Program (2011-2018) were overlaid on top of the MPAC data to determine which streets of homes built between 2006-2008 had not yet been selected for inspections. Uninspected streets of homes built during this time frame were of high priority and were added to the 2019 Alarms for Life Program street selection.
The high incidence of false alarm calls in homes aged 10 to 12 years appear to support the hypothesis that they still contain the original builder installed alarms which are now beginning to fail. While mapping this data supports the theory, it is only by looking at future data to see if the Alarms for Life Program has been effective at reducing the number of false alarm calls, that we can confirm this correlation.
Just as important as having working smoke and CO alarms installed in the right places is having and practising an escape plan. If the alarm goes off, everyone in the home needs to know exactly what they’re going to do and where they’re going to go. Make your plan, practise it with family members and increase your chance of survival.
After the heat program
The process of educating the public about fire prevention and fire safety faces many challenges, not the least of which is effectively communicating to citizens that residential fires can be serious and that it is in one’s best interest to take proper precautions. When there is a structure fire in a residential area, we take advantage of the citizen’s keen interest in learning more about what happened and how they can prevent a similar situation from happening in their own home.
The After the Heat Program is a joint effort between the fire prevention division and the fire operations division in which personnel conduct smoke alarm inspections in the areas directly adjacent to where a structural fire has occurred. In total, firefighters visit 40 houses: 10 houses each side of the impacted structure as well as 20 houses on the opposite side of the street.
We believe that being able to directly relate the fire safety information that we give to property owners to an incident that recently occurred in their neighborhood, will increase the buy-in and compliance from the residents. Given that public education is the first line of defence, this program helps increase awareness in the community about the life-saving benefits of working smoke alarms.
Service excellence and public engagement
I am proud to share that VFRS received a 100% satisfaction rating in the City of Vaughan’s 2018 Citizen Satisfaction Survey. I believe this can be directly attributed to the numerous community fire prevention and life-safety initiatives offered by all members of the team: firefighters, fire prevention inspectors/investigators, communications operators, training officers, mechanics and clerks. The community recognizes the fire service’s dedication and professionalism, and acknowledges the vital role they play in protecting the community.
When it comes to fire and life safety, we all have a role to play. Given that public education is the first line of defence, safety messages are shared on our social media accounts, by the City of Vaughan’s various communications channels and by our local politicians. By preventing fires from happening in the first place, we can help make the community a much safer place.
For more information, go to www.vaughan.ca/fire