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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Twenty-one pumps, eight aerials or platforms, four squads and nine support units responded. One hundred and thirty-four firefighters plus five district chiefs, two division chiefs, two safety and prevention chiefs, an assistant director and the director responded to the fire. During the night and the following day, another 61 firefighters and four chiefs responded to the scene to complete extinguishment and overhaul. Seventeen pumps were used to supply a total of 52 streams: 15 master streams, 21 three-inch hand lines and 16 1 3/4-inch handlines.

To protect the exposures, 17 crews were deployed inside the police headquarters building, five in 333 St. Antoine St. and six in 320 St. Antoine St. This was one of the largest firefighting operations undertaken by the Montreal Fire Department in the past three years.

Had it not been for this massive operation, damage to the police headquarters and the 911 Center would have been extensive. As it was, over 50 windows in the building were broken. There was smoke and water damage on the fourth and fifth floors at the west end of the building. There were many holes in the walls and ceiling near the broken windows where firefighters had opened up to check for extension. The east end of the building smelled of smoke but was not damaged.

The 911 Center suffered no damage other than there being a strong odor of smoke. However, operations could not resume until the building was cleaned up, the broken windows boarded up and the air-handling systems inspected and certified to contain no contaminants from the smoke. The alternate 911 Center was used for 52 hours. (This is the second time in the 911 system's 10 years of operation that it has been totally interrupted. The first time was several years ago when a contractor working at police headquarters cut the incoming telephone cables.)

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. The owner of the antiques store recently had called police concerning two break-ins and thefts of goods from his store. Homeless squatters would break into number 302 via the rear loading door at 307 St. Louis St. and then enter the rear of the antiques store at number 310 through openings in the wall. The day before the fire police had responded to a break-in call. The investigating officer in his report stated that "the building was very easy to enter and was very dangerous for a fire."

In an earlier break-in, on Oct. 8, police found a squatter still in the building. The third floor of number 302 was heavily charged with smoke from a fire set in a metal barrel by the squatter to keep warm. The suspect and other squatters had been living in the building for four days. In both cases, police contacted the building owner to board up the building.

The sprinkler system had been turned off since 1992. Fire inspectors had filed three complaints against the owner citing contravention of the National Fire Code of Canada, which requires that the sprinkler system be maintained in operating condition. The owner had been convicted in court twice and had paid fines.

In response to the 1993 contravention he indicated that a demolition permit had been requested. It was not given by the city as the building was considered to have historical architectural value. In a follow up to the 1995 contravention, the owner indicated that he did not have the money to put the system back in operating condition.

The problems did not stop with the sprinkler system. Fire department inspectors continually monitored the condition of the building. Eleven days before the fire, inspectors requested a permanent security perimeter as the St. Antoine Street wall on the third and fourth floors was in danger of collapse. On the same day and three days later fire inspectors requested the building to be barricaded. Finally, the night before the blaze, fire inspectors visited the building to see if any transients were in it and if the barricading was still effective. The building was open and inspectors made an urgent request to have it barricaded yet another time. Their ongoing efforts to prevent a major fire were of no avail.

The irony of this fire is that the police headquarters building houses the municipal courtroom in which the owner had been convicted for causing a major fire hazard. Little did anyone realize that the fire hazard would some day threaten the heart of the emergency response and legal system of the City of Montreal.

RESPONSE RUNDOWN

St. Louis and Gosford streets
Montreal, Quebec
04 November 1995