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Condo Scene: Keeping safe in a condo fire


fire fighters

OTTAWA — Do you know what to do if there’s a fire in your condo? Though there are codes to ensure buildings are constructed to a high standard of safety, there are other things you can do as a condo resident to ensure you and your family are prepared for a fire emergency.

Ottawa Fire Station 57 is conveniently located one door away from my office so I took the opportunity to interview Capt. Jim Gervais about how to prepare for the unlikely event of a condo fire.

Where they start

There’s little difference between a single-family residence fire and a condo fire in terms of where they originate, Gervais says. The most common cause is unattended cooking and the most common area of origin is — you guessed it — the kitchen. In condos and apartment buildings, 70 per cent of fires start in kitchens, five per cent in bedrooms, four per cent in areas of egress and the remainder in garbage, garages and locker rooms.

Being prepared

Prepare yourself by doing four things, says Gervais:

    1. Know all the exits from your floor, in case the nearest one is blocked by fire or smoke.


    1. Talk to your superintendent and/or condo board and know the emergency procedures outlined in the building’s fire safety plan. Learn about the fire safety features of the building — fire alarms, voice communication and evacuation procedures.


    1. Select a fully sprinkler-protected building to live in. If your building is not so protected, ask the condo board to consider installing a sprinkler system.


    1. Make sure all exit and stairwell doors are clearly marked, not locked or blocked by security bars and clear of clutter. Report any issues to the building superintendent or the fire department.


Gervais also recommends that residents keep a multi-purpose fire extinguisher in their units — one is generally enough. This should be kept “near or at a kitchen exit. Never put the extinguisher right beside the stove as you may get hurt trying to reach it.”

When do most fires occur?

December, says Gervais. And that goes for all residential buildings in Ontario, not just condos. It’s the month with the greatest number of fire fatalities.

“Smoking and candles are generally the cause, not heating appliances as one might expect,” he says. “Most fatalities occur during normal sleeping hours: 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.”

Is your condo board ready?

The board should maintain fire safety features including “sprinklers, alarms, fire separations, door closures and knowledge of their updated fire safety plan,” he says.

The board should also “remove fire hazards such as accumulated combustible waste materials.”

Right from the start

Gervais’ safety advice for builders? “Don’t just meet the minimum building code or fire code requirement. Protect your investment; install the best sprinkler system. A fire department-only access lockbox on the exterior of the building will give quick access to important building areas” in case of emergency.

Hearing the neighbour’s alarm

It’s 7 p.m. and your neighbour’s smoke alarm goes off. Maybe he or she is just cooking. We’ve all set off our alarms when we’ve forgotten to use the hood fan or it just isn’t doing its job. But don’t panic; wait to see if your neighbour is able to resolve the problem.

“Individual, independent smoke alarms in a unit are designed to detect very small amounts of smoke,” explains Gervais. “This early warning system will detect smoke and fumes from cooking and allow the occupant to prevent fires from developing. If the smoke alarm continues for several minutes without the occupant hushing it, you will want to investigate further or notify someone of the alarm.”

Getting out

There have been many deaths in nightclub fires over the years due to people getting overly anxious and swarming the exits, and then being unable to get out. Is there a similar danger with condo buildings?

Gervais says this is not a big problem with condo fires.

“The tragic night club fires are very different. Unfortunately, the people at a night club are generally unfamiliar with the building as they don’t live there, they only know one way out — the way they came in, and everyone heads for the same exit — the entrance. A residential building is compartmentalized; each unit has a fire separation from the other units. If need be, residents can take shelter in place and protect themselves from smoke, an option not available to night club goers.”

Of course, adding alcohol into the mix (at nightclubs) doesn’t help.

Condos vs. other buildings

You may think Gervais’ advice is equally applicable to your place of business. This is somewhat true, though not entirely.

“All highrises share many safety features and concerns,” says Gervais. “It is important to know all the exits and the emergency procedures for highrise buildings. Office buildings are different because they have large floor areas that are not fire separated and each floor may have a very different layout.”

If the alarm goes off

    1. Don’t panic, decide immediately if you are to leave or stay in your unit. Usually the best thing to do is leave the building as soon as possible. If you do not or cannot leave the building immediately, you must protect yourself from smoke, says Gervais.


    1. When you leave, take your keys, feel every door you encounter (including the one to your unit) for heat, and open slowly. If it’s safe, proceed. If at any time you encounter heavy smoke, find another exit or return to your unit.


    1. Remember, wherever you are, if there is smoke, get low and go under the smoke to safety. The air is cleaner near the floor.


Fires can happen at any time — when you are sleeping, showering or going to the bathroom. What to do? “As soon as you are able, try and leave the building,” says Gervais. “If it takes you a long time to get ready to leave, it may be safer to stay in your unit.”

Though it’s unlikely that you will have to worry about a fire in your new condo, it’s important to be prepared. Fires can take you unawares and you should be well versed in the fire safety plan specific to your unit and building.

Need to know more?

Why not address fire safety at your upcoming condo board meeting?

Should your condo board require any further information regarding condo fire safety, contact either:

Jeff Herlihey, the city’s prevention and public education officer

Jeffrey(dotted)Herlihey(at)ottawa(dotted)ca 613-580-2424, ext. 12878

Marc Messier

public information officer, Ottawa Fire Services

613-580-2424, ext. 29146

Marilyn Wilson has been selling real estate for more than 24 years and owns Marilyn Wilson Dream Properties Inc. Brokerage, an Exclusive Affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate. She can be reached through or follow her on Twitter@marilyn_wilson.

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