Vancouver firefighters responded to 504 emergency calls at one downtown single-room-occupancy hotel in 2022, with the majority related to a smoke alarm being triggered by tenants smoking cigarettes and narcotics.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services cited privacy reasons for not disclosing the name of the hotel but confirmed in an interview that it was located downtown, where the majority of the city’s SRO buildings are concentrated.
The fire department released the statistics Tuesday via Twitter and said the owner of the hotel is being billed for false alarms and prosecuted for bylaw infractions related to the building, although specifics weren’t provided.
“I don't have a full complete list [of the bylaw offences] because it's been submitted to legal for prosecution and didn't want to get into too many details in a single tweet,” said public information officer Matthew Trudeau, noting the purpose of highlighting the SRO via Twitter was to inform citizens of the magnitude of calls one building has generated for firefighters.
“Our public educators have given information to this building, our fire prevention staff has also gone out to this building as part of a task force to help the people there.”
Trudeau described legal action as the “last option” in getting the owner to enforce no-smoking orders in the building. Four fires were reported at the hotel between January and October 2022, he said.
Firefighters responded to more than 200 SRO fires across the city in 2022, with two people dying in April in the Winters Hotel fire in Gastown. A man also died in June after a lithium battery caused an explosion inside a room at the Empress Hotel, near Main and East Hastings streets.
Vancouver has a mix of B.C. government, City of Vancouver and private SROs that are typically managed by non-profit organizations. In some cases, tenants have access to health and other social services, while others don’t offer supports and charge above-average rent.
“We do have a number of very well managed, very clean, very safe, very nice SROs that are operated in and lived in without incident throughout the city,” Trudeau said.
“But there's a higher-risk population in certain SROs, and those are the ones that are driving up our call volume. There are mental health challenges, substance abuse challenges going on and people are not getting the needed supports.”
Of the 504 emergency calls to the SRO highlighted in Tuesday’s tweet, Trudeau said 300 were related to smoking and others to medical calls, which could include but are not limited to tenants experiencing chest pains, difficulty breathing and overdose.
Despite the volume of calls generated by the hotel, Trudeau said each one is attended to with the same urgency and diligence. At the same time, he added, adherence to bylaws and setting policy that prevents frequent visits frees up a fire crew to respond to other emergencies.
“We're always going to be there for people, but if we can put systems in place to get rid of some of the false alarms, then we will be free [in downtown] to provide services and be there quicker for a more efficient service,” he said.
Fire Chief Karen Fry
Fire Chief Karen Fry spoke to city council in November and said fires continue to increase in the city.
Fry said firefighters responded to an average of 10 fires per day between January and November that caused damage to a building or structure.
Ten people died in fires in 2022, with the most recent death occurring New Year’s Eve in a house on Ormidale Street, near Boundary Road and Kingsway.
A man in his 70s was the victim.
Overdose calls have averaged 19 per day, with eight per day out of the No. 2 fire hall in the Downtown Eastside.
As of the third week of November, firefighters administered the overdose-reversing drug naloxone 777 times this year, with more than 300 injections done by crews at No. 2 hall.
“We're saving lives, and we're protecting people as best we can with the resources that we have,” Fry told Glacier Media in November. “But we need more.”
Fry has requested council hire 40 firefighters and 15 other staff this year.
Glacier Media recently joined a fire crew in the Downtown Eastside for 12 hours. Firefighters were called twice in those 12 hours to the Hotel Persepolis on Columbia Street after alarms were triggered by tenants smoking in the hallways of the SRO.
Trudeau said the Persepolis was not the hotel highlighted in the department’s tweet.