Alberta firefighters want the provincial government to hold off approving the construction of 12-storey wooden buildings provincewide.
Current regulations limit wood-constructed buildings to six storeys, but the next edition of the National Building Code – anticipated for publication at the end of 2020 – will allow for projects twice that high.
The Alberta government has said it will issue a notice that aligns with the new federal code, allowing taller wooden building made using fire-resistant materials in time for the upcoming construction season.
Brad Readman, president of the Alberta Fire Fighters Association, says that’s too soon. He wants the UCP government to hit pause in implementing changes, until the review of the National Building Code is completed.
“We want to make sure the residents in these buildings are safe and the safety of our members is considered as well,” said Readman, of Sylvan Lake. “Because we’re the ones going in there when there’s an emergency, and we’re in there longer than anyone else.”
Robb Cook, president of Red Deer Firefighters Association Local 1190, echoed Readman’s concerns about the province moving ahead too quickly.
“With that high of a building, constructed of wood, the risk of collapse is sooner than steel, so we’re asking for that review, just so we have adequate resources in place,” Cook said.
There are unknowns, he explained, such as what type of fire-resistant materials are used, what their burn time is, and “what it does, when it does burn … and what types of chemicals are in there.
“So all of that needs to be done in a study which is under the National Building Code review,” Cook said.
Those chemicals are also a concern for Red Deer fire Chief Ken McMullen. The materials and furnishings in our homes today are different than those in earlier homes, say, prior to the 1950s.
“There is more plastics today, more fabric today, and all of those include chemicals and combustible materials that do increase the spread of fire, and increase the toxicity,” said McMullen.
The chemicals that would be used to protect a wood-frame construction would be riskier for firefighters, “and I would have to agree that those are components we would want to take into consideration.”
Red Deer Emergency Services department has the right equipment and the right staffing to ensure an appropriate response to any highrise fire, he added.
“Does the wood-frame construction add a component that we aren’t totally familiar with, and what that’s going to do? I would say yes,” McMullen explained.
The Alberta Fire Fighters Association proposes the Alberta Building Code should require municipalities that grant permits for 12-storey wood-frame structures to provide specific training and have specific emergency response plans on file, backed by an adequate number of fire department personnel and vehicles available.
The building code should also spell out requirements for regular inspections of tall wood structures and the enforcement of safety rules, says the group.
There are taller buildings than six storeys in Canada, such as the one in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia, which is 18-storeys high. But Readman said an emergency response plan was in place for the project.
In the past, wood-frame buildings under construction have caused large fires in places such as Edmonton. In Calgary, flames raced through the Waterford Place condominium complex in 2002.
In Kingston, Ont., a massive blaze in 2013 taxed the city’s emergency response resources to their limit for 48 hours.