When a major fire or explosion happens, firefighters, police, paramedics, emergency volunteers and journalists often rush to the scene in response.
But when it comes to carrying out the complex, scientific investigations needed during the immediate aftermath to get to the bottom of how and why such a devastating event happened, it falls to a highly trained team of experts with Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) — a provincial agency founded in 1916.
“It’s our job to determine the origin and cause of that fire and if there’s a way we can prevent a similar occurrence we want to do that … we want to take proactive steps,” Steve Wilson, the assistant deputy fire marshal with the OFM, told Global News while also reflecting on the emotional load the office’s responsibilities can sometimes have on its personnel.
“Our investigators, engineers and specialists, we ask them to do some of the most difficult investigations on behalf of the province so it’s important we have the support for our folks in place to help them manage (a psychotherapist is on staff and OFM relies on a peer-support network) … they’re dealing with devastation and death all the time.
“There’s a huge weight put on their shoulders because they want to bring closure to everyone who has been impacted by that incident.”
The OFM gets called in to probe fires where there are fatalities, serious injuries, or suspected arsons. The agency is also tasked with investigating explosions, including ones by clandestine drug labs. When there is significant loss experienced ($500,000 or more in damage, or more than twice the average residential sale price in the community), that will also trigger an investigation.
In 2020, the agency looked into approximately 650 fires and explosions and at a full staffing complement there are 26 primary investigators, plus other scientists and experts who will take charge in those investigations. Under the Fire Prevention and Protection Act, investigators have authority to enter property to conduct probes and they’ll work with police if it’s determined to be criminal. The staff also act as experts in criminal court proceedings as well.
During the summer, Global News spent time with a team of new OFM recruits to get a better understanding of the office and the role it plays.
As part of the team’s training, they attended a series of live exercises at Seneca College’s Newnham campus where instructors and students of the pre-service firefighter and fire service training programs, under carefully controlled conditions, simulated a variety of burns in singular rooms such as a cigarette burning on a couch (a scenario that took several minutes for flames to develop), arson, and one on lighters.
Manny Garcia, a training specialist with the OFM, said the biggest cause of fires and fatalities in the province has to do with cooking and not paying attention. He said smoking in bed and people smoking while near oxygen tanks are also to blame.
When it comes to the biggest misconception about fire investigations, which typically involves crews initially being on scene for two to five days before conducting further analysis for weeks after, Garcia said it is widely believed that it’s almost impossible to figure out what happened.
“That’s just not true. It’s unbelievable what actually survives the fire … for smouldering fires started by a cigarette, we can actually find the actual cigarette as long as the suppression system doesn’t knock it away,” he said.
It isn’t until a fire is extinguished that OFM will arrive at a site and when crews do so, their first priority is to make sure the buildings are structurally sound and that the utilities are disconnected before they even enter. When safe, Garcia said the key question is determining the origin of the fire.
“Is this a fire that happened on the outside and spread inward or is it an interior fire that then spread outward? So we do that by performing a walk around the building, examining the fire patterns, seeing what the available fuel is — and that’s another reason why we say to people make sure that you keep the exterior house neat and tidy,” he said.
“Say the fire is on the interior of the building, then we commence our interior analysis so that we can then determine what’s our room of origin and where that fire started and then once we’ve determined the room of origin, we try to determine the area of origin within that room and see what ignition sources were there.
“If you can’t find the area of origin, you can’t determine the cause of the fire.”
Garcia said inside a building, investigators start with the areas least consumed by fire before moving to the ones most heavily damaged, adding the level of damage does not necessarily indicate where the fire started (for instance higher levels of oxygen could cause greater damage).
After a room or area is isolated, Garcia said investigators will divide the space into quarters — sometimes pulling the contents out of the area after thoroughly photographing it, putting elements through sifters, and sometimes reconstructing the space as it was first found. He said firefighters will sometimes be called back to spray down the floor, adding a clean surface can reveal more clues.
“What am I looking at? Am I looking at electrical? Was there an extension cord that was being used improperly? Was there a power bar that really wasn’t up to standards? Were they smoking in that area? Was there a wastebasket? Were there? Were there candles? These are the things that you look for,” he said, reviewing things investigators might ask.
“In order for something to be consumed, it has to go from a solid state when it’s heated, it becomes a vapor state and then that’s actually what burns. So at some point in time, there will be some of that residue left behind if it doesn’t change entirely and that’s what we’re looking at, what’s left over, what’s being consumed, what hasn’t happened yet.
As for explosions, Garcia said it too comes down to determining the area of origin.
“You start looking at, was it natural gas? Was it propane? Was there a fire and then an explosion or was there an explosion and then a fire? And you can tell just by, for instance, if you find the shattered glass and the glass has no soot on it, you pretty well know you’re looking at that explosion first as opposed to fire and then an explosion,” he explained.
With respect to fire safety and protection in Ontario, local fire services across Ontario also have a role to play. Many municipal fire services have sections dealing specifically with Ontario Fire Code compliance.
Larry Cocco, deputy fire chief of community risk reduction for Toronto Fire Services (TFS) — the largest service in Canada — said TFS typically investigates 200 to 250 fires. Like the OFM, TFS staff are tasked with understanding the cause of those fires with an eye toward prevention.
“If we don’t know our fire risk, how can we determine our fire safety concerns in the community?” Cocco said.
Using local data, Cocco said TFS fire prevention officers can put in place inspection programs based on risk and common trends. For example, while responding to a fire at an apartment building in 2016, the service experienced a “major failure” of the standpipe (the source of water for firefighters to connect to).
“It really challenged our suppression,” he recalled, adding when they started probing the issue they found there was nothing in the Ontario Fire Code to mandate testing of standpipes in older buildings.
Cocco said the service audited 100 older buildings randomly after that initial issue and found a “remarkable failure rate.” He said that probe eventually resulted in a change to the code and as a result, there are now mandatory five-year tests for those structures.
While Toronto has seen major incidents such as the Sunrise Propane explosion in 2008 and the Toronto Badminton and Racquet Club fire in 2017, both prompting an extensive deployment of resources to put out, the fires that heavily impact people are on a much more personal level.
“The size of the fire does not impact the process. We follow the exact same process regardless of the incident,” Cocco said.
He noted the three most common ignition sources for fires in Toronto are unattended cooking, improper disposal of smoking materials, and electrical fires (appliances that have been modified or used improperly).
Officials reiterated the need to maintain working smoke alarms inside properties.
“If you don’t have a working smoke alarm, what’s going to wake you up is probably you choking on smoke that you’re not going to be able to escape. You basically have got two, maybe three minutes to get out, and there’s no way you’re getting everything on a smoke alarm, not at three o’clock in the morning,” Garcia said.
“Not only must you have a working smoke alarm, but you also need a fire exit plan and it needs to be practiced, especially with kids.”
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