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

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.

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.

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.

The exposure to the east of number 310 St. Antoine St. was a three-story, occupied commercial and residential building at number 320. There was a five-inch space between the brick wall of number 310 and that of number 320. To the north across St. Antoine Street, which is about 65 feet wide, is a five-story office building of concrete and steel construction at number 333. To the west, across Gosford Street, is a large open area around an entrance to one of the city's subway stations.

On Saturday evening, Nov. 4, 1995, there were about 50 people in the police headquarters building, including 14 of the 911 Center operators. At 8:19 P.M., the 911 Center received a call from a security guard in the basement of the police headquarters reporting smoke coming from the building across the street at 311 St. Louis. The call was transferred to the Montreal Fire Department Communications Center.

Photo by Ian Stronach
Direct flame impingement on the fourth and fifth floors, intense radiant heat and flying brands threatened to spread the fire to the police headquarters building across the street.

The Communications Center dispatched a Category 4 (high risk) assignment of Pumps 220, 225 and 319, Platform 720, Ladder 405, Squad 513 and District Operations Chief 136, Gaetan Lariviere, at 8:20 P.M. Firefighters on first-due Pump 220 and Platform 720 on leaving their station a quarter of a mile to the west on St. Antoine Street could smell smoke. When they were four blocks from the building, they could see smoke in the area.

Platform 720 was first on the scene at 8:22 P.M. Lieutenant Sylvain Vermette told the driver to turn down St. Louis Street. Before the truck came to a stop, Lieutenant Vermette gave the following report, "10-07 (working fire), four-story building with smoke and fire showing." Flames were shooting from two windows on each of the third and fourth floors at the east end of number 311. Platform 720 began to set up in front of the building. One minute later, at 8:23 P.M., Vermette requested the second alarm as flames started to spread rapidly across the third and fourth floors in a westward direction. At 8:24, he requested the third alarm as heavy fire began showing from the second floor as well.

Pump 220, under the command of Captain Richard Bibeau, had been right behind the Platform 720. As they turned the corner off St. Antoine Street onto Gosford Street, Bibeau recalls, "I saw light smoke coming from the front of the building (310 St. Antoine St.), I could see the reflection of the flames on the wall of the police headquarters and there was a lot of smoke at the corner of St. Louis Street. There was nothing showing on the Gosford side of the building."

On his orders, the driver and crew laid dual three-inch supply lines from the hydrant in front of the fire building at Gosford and St. Antoine streets to the corner of Gosford and St. Louis streets. Firefighters took two three-inch handlines down St. Louis Street to attack the fire from the outside.

In the meantime, third-due Pump 319 had arrived at the east end of St. Louis Street. Firefighters brought two additional three-inch handlines down St. Louis Street to attack the fire. In addition, they began setting up to supply Platform 720's master stream. Ladder 405 had pulled into the yard next to the fire building to set up the ladder. With the fire spreading at a speed rarely seen, Vermette requested the fourth and fifth alarms at 8:29 P.M.

Lariviere arrived as the fourth and fifth alarms were being transmitted. He recalls, "I arrived and saw heavy black smoke pouring from the windows of 302 and 310 St. Antoine. On St. Louis Street I noted a very rapid flame propagation toward the west end of the building. The windows on the second, third and fourth floors were lighting up simultaneously."

Map by Ian Stronach

Heavy fire was also through the roof. An exterior defensive attack was mounted using three-inch handlines, deluge guns and elevated master streams on St. Louis and Gosford streets. Second-alarm companies were setting up at the same time on the St. Antoine Street side. Within five minutes the fire had spread to number 307 and now involved three floors of both buildings.

The fire was now throughout the two buildings. Lariviere recalls, "Once the fire was showing from all the windows on the south side (St. Louis Street), flames started showing from windows on the north side (St. Antoine Street), but on this side of the building they lit up simultaneously, floor by floor from the fourth to the third and then to the second."

Lariviere continues, "I immediately ordered all personnel away from the building to a safe distance as I had reason to believe that a collapse was going to occur."

In addition to the collapse hazard the radiant heat became unbearable. Conditions on St. Louis Street became so hot that Pump 220 was in danger of catching fire. Firefighters had to shut down the deluge gun and handlines and move the truck. They could not shut off the hydrant as it was right next to the fully involved building. There was enough slack in the supply lines that the pump could be moved south on Gosford Street to in front of the police building without disconnecting the lines. The pump was moved again farther up Gosford Street where the supply lines could be shut down with hose clamps and additional lengths added.

At the same time, Platform 720 and Ladder 405 on St. Louis Street were moved to the east. Firefighters from Pump 319 also retreated east on St. Louis Street to a safe distance. Ladder 403, which had set up master stream operations at the corner of Gosford and St. Antoine streets, was also being subjected to extreme radiant heat and had to be moved quickly. A strong wind was blowing across the fire building directly at the police headquarters. Driven by the wind, the flames exiting from every window on the St. Louis Street side of the buildings soon combined to create a wall of fire that stretched across St. Louis Street and impinged directly on the wall of the municipal court half of the police building.

Photo by Ian Stronach
Within 15 minutes of the first alarm, the two buildings were fully involved.

Lariviere recalls, "The flames came out the windows under pressure and extended 20 to 30 feet horizontally to break the windows in sector 3, the police building."

Once relocated, firefighters at the east and west ends of St. Louis Street immediately redirected their deluge, handline and elevated master streams onto the north wall of the police headquarters but they had no effect. The exposed part of the police building was over 150 feet long. Even master streams were vaporizing before they reached the middle of the building.

The threat to the police building was even further heightened by flying brands. Lariviere recounts, "Within a few minutes, brands from the roof of the building were flying 50 feet in the air and onto the roof of the police headquarters."

Early in the fire, Lariviere had realized that the police building was in grave danger of becoming involved. There was direct flame impingement on the fourth and fifth floors, intense radiant heat, windows breaking on every floor and flying brands landing on the roof. lt was obvious that without a massive effort the fire would propagate into the police headquarters. Pump 225, which had been relay pumping to Pump 220, was redirected to pump the standpipe system in the police building.

As fast as multiple alarm companies arrived they were deployed inside. Firefighters stretched multiple three-inch and 1 3/4-inch lines from standpipes onto every floor. They concentrated their efforts on the fourth and fifth floors, where the effects of the flame impingement and radiant heat were greatest. From inside streams were directed at the broken windows. In addition, firefighters opened up the walls and ceilings adjacent to the windows to ensure that the fire did not spread into the concealed spaces.

For at least 10 minutes there was direct flame impingement on the fourth and fifth floors for half the length of the building. Over 50 windows were broken by the heat. Additional firefighters were sent to the roof to extinguish fires that had started due to the flying brands.

Those parts of the building not directly affected by flames and heat began filling with smoke as the fresh-air intake is on the roof. The 911 Center has an air supply independent from the rest of the building. However, it too has its fresh-air inlet on the roof. Due to the heavy smoke condition on the roof the two air handling systems had to be shut down. Conditions in the building had become untenable. It was clear that all the occupants of the building had to be evacuated, including those in the 911 Center.

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.

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.


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

2020 hours: Telephone alarm. Pumps 220, 225, 319; Ladder 405; Platform 720; Squad 513; Chief 136.
2022: "On the scene, working fire" from Platform 720. Squad 537; Chiefs 135, 133, 138; Air Supply 1605; Command Post 1005; Car 911 (investigation); Bus 1413.
2023: Second alarm. Pumps 219, 216, 315; Ladders 425, 403; Chief 134; Training 935 (water supply); Mechanic 861; Safety Chief 145.
2024: Third alarm. Pumps 215, 213, 210; Ladder 419; Chiefs 115, 116; Chief Inspector 125; Fuel 881; Canteen 1330; Ambulance 1230.
2029: Fourth and fifth alarms. Pumps 623, 226, 230, 605; Chiefs 112, 123; Assistant Director 104; Director 101.
2044: Special call. Ladder 410.
2051: Special call. Pumps 229, 247, 245.
2059: Special call. Pumps 242, 327; Ladder 435; Squads 550, 526.
2114: Special call. Pumps 227, 239, 609.
2119: Special call. Platform 715.
2205: Special call. Bus 1423.
2217: "Fire under control."
0039: Special call for relief. Pumps 237, 648; Ladders 423, 427; Platform 741; Chief 131.
0258: Special call for relief. Pumps 234, 333; Ladders 409, 450; Platform 748.
0438: Special call for relief. Pumps 339, 249; Ladder 431.
0445: Special call for relief. Chief 132.
0613: Special call for relief. Chief 138.
0700: Special call for relief. Shift change Pumps 220, 315; Ladder 425; Platform 720.
1100: Special call for relief. Pump 227; Ladder 445; Platform 747.
1144: "Fire out."
1436: Special call for ruins. Pump 319; Chief 136.
1702: Special call for ruins. Platform 716.

Ian Stronach, a Firehouse® correspondent, is the Loss Prevention Manager for Alcan Aluminium Ltd. in Montreal, Quebec.