On The Job - Montreal: 911 Center Evacuated During 5-Alarm Fire

Ian Stronach provides coverage of a multiple-alarm fire that threatened the city’s emergency communications network.


MONTREAL FIRE DEPARTMENT Director Romeo Noel Personnel: 1,662 career firefighters Apparatus: 44 pumps, 31 trucks, nine manpower squads, three special units Population: 1 million Area: 74.3 square miles The Montreal Urban Community's enhanced 911 system serves the 2.8 million...


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MONTREAL FIRE DEPARTMENT
Director Romeo Noel
Personnel: 1,662 career firefighters
Apparatus: 44 pumps, 31 trucks, nine manpower squads, three special units
Population: 1 million
Area: 74.3 square miles

The Montreal Urban Community's enhanced 911 system serves the 2.8 million inhabitants of the City of Montreal, Quebec, and the 26 suburban municipalities on the Island of Montreal. Each day, between 3,500 and 5,000 calls for police, fire, medical, gas and electric utility emergencies are handled.

4_96_montreal1.jpg
Photo by Ian Stronach
Due to intense radiant heat and the danger of collapse, firefighters had to retreat to a safe distance from the fully involved building.

The 911 Center is in the police headquarters and municipal court building in the heart of Montreal's historic "vieux quartier" (old quarter). Built in the 1930s, the building was later extended and now is a single concrete structure 300 feet long, 70 feet wide and five stories tall. It occupies an entire city block, bounded by Champs de Mars Street to the south, Gosford Street to the west, Bonsecours Street to the east and St. Louis Street to the north. It is divided into two sections. The east section at the Bonsecours Street end is police headquarters, housing the 911 Center, the police communications center, police administration offices and prisoner cells. The west section on the Gosford Street end houses the City of Montreal municipal court and the police emergency operations command center.

The building is protected throughout by standpipes with 2 1/2-inch connections and 1 1/2-inch hose cabinets. Sprinklers are being retrofitted as modifications are made to the building interior. However, the sprinklers that have been installed have yet to be placed in service.

Like many streets in the "vieux quartier," St. Louis Street is narrow, only 30 feet wide. It runs east from Gosford Street, on the north side of the police headquarters and municipal court building, for two blocks. Across St. Louis Street from the west end of the police building were two commercial buildings, numbers 307 and 311. These occupied the western half of the block bounded by St. Louis Street to the south, St. Antoine Street to the north, Gosford Street to the west and Bonsecours Street to the east.

The fronts of the two buildings were numbers 302 and 310 St. Antoine St. They were built in the late 1800s with stone and brick load-bearing walls, heavy timber floors and wood roofs. From the outside they appeared to be two buildings, as they had originally been constructed with a common brick wall between them. However, like many buildings in the "vieux quartier," looks can be deceiving. Many years ago, openings with fire doors had been made in the wall at each floor to interconnect the buildings. This created a single building, 120 feet long and 70 feet wide. Both buildings were fully sprinklered.

4_96_montreal2.jpg
Photo by Ian Stronach
The fire occurred in two attached buildings and spread throughout, due to the many openings in the common wall.

When last fully occupied, 302 and 310 St. Antoine St. had been used by an office equipment supplier. Since 1992, the buildings had been vacant except for an antiques dealer that occupied the ground floor of number 310. Number 302 was known to be used as a refuge by the homeless. The buildings had deteriorated badly. Some years ago, steel cables had been installed to tie together diagonally the corners of the two buildings as they were in danger of collapsing.

The Montreal Fire Department's Fire Prevention Bureau and its Occupational Safety Division had inspected the buildings a number of times to assess their condition and the risk to firefighters. As a result, on June 11, 1995, the department issued a bulletin advising that numbers 302 and 310 St. Antoine St. were extremely dangerous and had a high risk of collapse in a fire. The department's pre-plan was immediately revised to defensive operations and only from a safe distance. The "vieux quartier" has been the scene of many large fires involving building collapses, some with tragic consequences. In 1981, three firefighters died in the collapse of a seven-story building. The fire department was taking no chances.

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