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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Photo by Ian Stronach
Twenty-one pumps, eight trucks, four squads and 134 firefighters responded to the fire.

The immediate priority was to get the alternate center up and running before the 911 Center had to shut down completely. If this could not be done in the shortest time possible, 2.8 million citizens would have no way to call for assistance in an emergency. The alternate site is in Police Station 31B on top of Mount Royal, about three miles away. It is fully equipped and can be started up within five minutes by simply redirecting the telephone lines.

Andre Gauvreau, administrative manager of the 911 Center, who was on call, and one of the chief operators immediately went to the alternate site to prepare for the transfer. A means of transportation had to be found to quickly transport the 911 staff to the alternate site.

The Montreal Fire Department operates three school-type buses for fire victim shelter and personnel transfers at shift change during fires. A bus responds to all building fires. Bus 1413 was quickly placed into service. The 911 Center personnel were split up. The first group went to the alternate site to prepare to receive calls while others kept the main center operational. The citizens were never totally without 911 service. However, for three or four minutes while the telephone lines were being transferred the normal 10-second call receipt time could not be met.

Problems at the police station were further complicated by there being 15 prisoners in cells on the fifth floor. Police relocated them to other stations. In addition, the police communications center that is separate form the 911 Center had to be relocated to its alternate site.

Due to the total involvement of the two fire buildings there were other exposures to protect. The number-one priority was the police headquarters. However, the building at 320 St. Antoine St., adjacent to the fire buildings, was in danger as well, even though it was separated by a five-inch space. Firefighters were sent to the roof and inside on all floors to protect against the fire spreading.

Lariviere's concerns did not end there. The commercial building at 333 St. Antoine St., across the street from the fire buildings, was also being subjected to intense radiant heat. Even with the wind blowing in the opposite direction, the radiant heat was cracking windows on the fourth and fifth floors. Firefighters were sent inside to protect against the fire getting into this building.

By 8:41 P.M., the 13 pumps, five aerials and two squads from the fifth alarm were on the scene. However, even this was not adequate to protect all the exposures. At 8:44 P.M., Lariviere requested an additional aerial. Seven minutes later. he asked for another three pumps. At 8:54 P.M., he called for two more pumps, two squads and another aerial. At 9:14, three more pumps were requested. At 9:19, an additional elevating platform was ordered.

By about 9:15 P.M., the interior of 310 St.Antoine began to collapse. For the next 45 minutes, a number of interior collapses occurred in 302 and 310. Finally, by about 10 P.M., the exterior walls of 302 and 310 had totally collapsed. The radiant heat and exposure problem subsided as quickly as it had started. All that was left was a half-block-long pile of burning rubble.

Crews in the police building now switched their priority from preventing fire propagation to property conservation. The fifth floor had considerable smoke and water damage. Salvage covers were spread over computers and other equipment to protect against damage from water and smoke.

At 12:45 A.M. the following morning, the fire was declared under control but would not be extinguished for another 18 hours.

During the night, six pumps and seven aerials were called for relief. Throughout the day, crews remained on the scene to continue extinguishment of the ruins. Another four pumps and five aerials were sent to the scene during the day. A power shovel was also brought in to uncover the ruins so that firefighters could extinguish the flames. The last crews left the scene at 6:30 P.M. on Sunday, 22 hours after the fire started.