March 29, 2023

In Ontario, the leading causes of fire are still unsupervised cooking and smoking related incidents. While much can still be done to educate people on fire prevention, it is just as important to be aware of how to respond to a fire or other emergency in your home.

Many college and university students are living independently for the first time. They may not be familiar with laws and practices surrounding fire prevention and safety.

John Percy, Waterloo Fire Rescue’s public education officer, stands in front of an educational board for fire prevention and safety at 600 King St. N., Waterloo, Ont., on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. Photo by Jeff Halcrow | Spoke News

Fire Prevention Week

Oct. 7-13 is Fire Prevention Week in North America, which means that Waterloo Fire Rescue (WFR) public education officer John Percy has been busy shedding light on areas where students or other property renters might be uninformed. The theme of this year’s prevention week is to “Look, listen and learn. Be aware. Fire can happen anywhere.” Percy stressed that for any renter or homeowner, the best plan of action is to always have at least two ways out during an emergency.

Befitting his title, Percy’s goal is to educate the public, and “change behaviour so that you recognize fire safety, but more importantly you know what to do if you have an emergency.” While many high-rise apartments and businesses have plans in case of fire, most people don’t consider the risks of fire or carbon monoxide (CO) in their homes since they aren’t a regular occurrence.

“As human beings, if it doesn’t happen on a regular basis, we don’t learn about it, we don’t know what to do, we don’t consider it … that’s why it’s so important to push home fire safety. Through public education, we’re trying to prevent a fire or emergency from starting in the first place … but what’s just as important is you need to know how to react if it does.”

Leading causes of fire

Unsafe cooking practices, such as leaving cooking food unattended, are still the leading causes of home fires in Ontario, followed by smoking-related incidents and then appliance or electrical fires. Percy says, “What we tell people is when you’re cooking, you have to stay focused — you can’t get distracted.” He elaborated that this can include leaving the kitchen area, checking social media or being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Percy said that part of the problem with people’s behaviour around fire is that people always think of using water to put out a fire. If you have a fire in a pot or pan, “the best way to put it out is to take an oven mitt, just slide the lid over it. That takes away the reactants to the fire.” When cooking with a pot or pan, especially when using oil, do not use water to try to extinguish the fire. With combining water and “any kind of grease and oil, you will have an instant explosion. You will be severely burned,” and could spread the fire to other areas of a kitchen, where tables and cabinets are often made of wood, Percy says.

With Halloween coming soon, there is an increase in candle use in jack-o’-lanterns and inside homes, so it is important to remember to keep candles away from drapes or curtains, and also away from areas where they may be tipped over.

Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms

In Ontario, it has been mandatory since 2014 for any home to have working smoke alarm on each floor, and a CO alarm near sleeping areas.

For students renting an apartment for the first time, it is important to know your rights and inspect potential homes for smoke and CO alarms. Percy said that of the best messages he could spread to renters is to test these alarms in the presence of the landlord or owner on first inspection. In the eyes of the law, Percy said, “ it’s the responsibility of the landlord as the owner of the home to make sure they are operational when you move in. As the tenant, it’s your responsibility that, if there are any problems, to let the landlord know. And you can’t disable them — that’s actually against the law.” If a tenant is ever unsure about the status of a smoke or CO alarm, or the procedures to evacuate the residence, they can always ask your landlord.

Since many people are still unaccustomed to CO alarms, tenants should try to familiarize themselves with the devices in their homes. According to Percy and WFR, “85 per cent of all our CO calls in the winter are false alarms. And the reason they’re false alarms is because people don’t know what to do when it goes off .… A lot of people think, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’ve got carbon monoxide poisoning in my home,’ when … maybe just the battery is low.”

If your CO alarm does go off, evacuate all residents of your home and call 911 once outside the house. Do not leave doors or windows open, since, once firefighters arrive, they will need to measure the CO in the air and it will be difficult to determine how much CO was present if fresh air is coming into the house.

Remember to never leave cooking or other hot objects unattended, and to replace smoke and CO alarm batteries at least once a year. Most importantly, always have at least two planned escape routes in case of a fire or other emergency.

More information on fire prevention, safety and statistics can be found through the following links:

Cambridge Fire Department

Kitchener Fire Department

Waterloo Fire Department

Ontario Fire Department

For new renters, it is also important to have access to and familiarize yourself with local bylaws that govern property rights and other legal protections:

Cambridge Bylaws search

Kitchener Bylaws

Kitchener Property Standards

Waterloo Bylaws

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