High-rise blazes generally not a Canadian issue: fire safety expert

But insurers can make sure high-rises play by the building rules

The blaze that consumed a high-rise apartment building in London, U.K. earlier this week is unlikely to occur in Canada. Nonetheless, lack of Canadian data means domestic insurers cannot fully understand the risk of such events, says Michael Currie, vice president of Fire Underwriters Survey.

“A lot of insurers in Canada are going to be wondering, what are the chances of this happening here?” says Currie in an interview with Canadian Insurance Top Broker. “One issue that we have is we don’t have great stats because the fire commissioners and the fire marshals who are part of provincial ministries [have had their funding] cut in the last few decades.”

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Canada-specific data on building fires has not been published since 2007.

And so Currie turns to data provided by the U.S.-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regarding the prevalence of fires in high-rises. The NFPA finds that the death rate and average loss per fire are generally lower in high-rises compared to shorter buildings. This is likely due to the greater use of fire protection systems and features within high-rise structures, according to a fact sheet by the association.

Canadian apartments were among the first buildings to require the use of non-combustible construction materials and sprinkler systems, says Currie, so they’re widely considered safe.

The U.K., on the other hand, is resistant to the use of sprinklers in buildings, says John Ivison, a fire protection consultant and principal of John Ivison and Associates.

There is the perception that sprinklers will cause excessive water damage but sprinklers go off only when activated by heat and only in the area that is on fire, explains Ivison to Canadian Insurance Top Broker. However, the U.K.’s bias towards sprinklers means that a building code consultant in the U.K. may not be that informed on the functionality of sprinklers, he says.

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However, Canada does have its own sprinkler problem. National requirements have only come into effect within the last 40 years. Many high-rises built prior to that era were grandfathered, bypassing the newer requirements, says Currie.

Still, insurers typically classify those older buildings as higher-risk and subject to a higher rate of loss control inspections than newer structures, says Currie. But insurers must shoulder the responsibility of ordering inspections on structures they cover, as implementation and enforcement of building codes is inconsistent across the country, says Currie.

“Basically, this is something that municipalities pay for, so every community decides for itself if it wants to do any inspections, if it wants to spend $1 million or $10 million on inspections,” he explains.

“That’s the loss control inspections piece and insurers would be very wise to have subject-matter experts that represent their interests,” he adds. “Municipalities may not actually be able to afford to spend money on fire protection inspections, and even when they have the fire prevention inspections done, they typically have very little ability to enforce it.”

 

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Transcontinental Media G.P.