As Kelowna potentially grows beyond 40-storey buildings, just how safe are they in a fire?

Fire safety as city grows up

For about a half century, the largest piece of apparatus in Kelowna's firefighting arsenal has been inadequate to fight fires in the city's largest structures.

Kelowna's tallest aerial ladder truck reaches just 102 feet and, as the department's fire prevention officer tells it, utilizing it effectively based on angle, that's a maximum of about five storeys.

Buildings in the city began surpassing that in the 1970s. In 1976 the Kiwanis Tower reached 12 storeys and 141 feet while nearly two decades later, Two Landmark Square (160 feet) and the Dolphins (184 feet) sprung up.

"A lot of people have the misconception that the ladder truck is our only avenue to fight fires in higher buildings," Paul Johnson told Castanet News.

"The reality is when a building is built, it's actually pre-engineered. It's designed for fire department access."

Buildings have gotten increasingly taller since then. Skye at Waterscapes (289 feet and 27 storeys) is the tallest building right now, but will be surpassed by both towers at One Water Street which are both under construction.

Those high rises check in at 29 and 36 storeys respectively and well over 300 feet.

Now, 42 storeys have been approved for Leon Avenue with 46 proposed for Bertram Street.

With fire safety in mind, Johnson says buildings this tall are actually constructed as three separate buildings.

"You have the main component of the building and you have the two stairwells," he says.

"Those stairwells actually have a two hour fire rating, so if a fire were to happen within the stairwell, it's going to take two hours to burn through that wall or that door and start compromising the adjacent space."

The reverse is also true.

Every building with an alarm system is also required to have a fire safety plan. Johnson says the department looks at all of the life safety systems and incorporate them within their pre-attack plan should an emergency occur.

They'll know what is in the building, and where.

"A high rise building has to have fire sprinklers, it has to have standpipes in the stairwells, meaning we can go to the 35th floor and connect onto a pipe in the wall and we have water pressure.

"There is a fire pump that is going to push 100 PSI to any specific floor so we have adequate water, we have fire sprinklers. High rise buildings also incorporate smoke control measures designed to remove smoke from that building."

It's a concrete and steel structure, says Johnson. Worst case, if they can't get a handle on a fire right away, the room and contents will eventually burn itself out.

In his role as fire prevention officer, Johnson says he also is tasked with looking over development plans submitted to the city's planning department well before they reach city council.

"I review those plans and make comment accordingly. If there are concerns on the cladding for example, we can question that, then it goes to the engineer to offer a rebuttal," he says.

He says the building code provides a high standard of how buildings can be constructed. Deviations are allowed but only, Johnson says, if a developer can offer a greater level of safety by doing something different.

"I think our engineering and fire code requirements are kind of the envy of our countries. We have very stringent codes that actually makes our buildings very safe."

In terms of the height Kelowna buildings are reaching, Johnson says he, and the department are not opposed.

He says emergencies do happen, but through good engineering and the opportunity to actually comment at the development stage, safety is enhanced.

"I would be more comfortable fighting a fire in a high rise than I would a four-storey apartment building."

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