Number of SRO fires in Vancouver putting pressure on crews: VFRS

Vancouver fire crews say the number of calls to single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings in the city is starting to take a toll.

Capt. Matthew Trudeau, who speaks for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, says crews are called out to multiple SRO fires each day, putting even more pressure on first responders.

“Unfortunately, there are about one to two per day. Some days we’ll get three, four, or five in a day. This is problematic and it’s challenging to overcome, especially for high-risk populations in very valuable housing,” he told CityNews.

“Our crews, if it’s good or bad, are getting well accustomed to this response. Just so people are aware, for an SRO fire, where we know there’s smoke or flames, on a first alarm call to these buildings, they’re getting approximately 10 apparatus that are going there because of the age and high-risk nature of these buildings. So it is very resource-heavy. If there is a significant fire, we need a lot of staff there to look after these structures so we don’t lose anymore buildings.”

Cause of fires

Trudeau says the leading cause of fires in SROs are “smokers’ material related to drug-use.”

While there are some newer buildings with functioning alarms and sprinklers, Trudeau notes many SROs are without these vital systems.

“There are very real consequences and downstream effects for even a small fire, let alone having a larger, significant fire, where we’ve seen very disastrous effects of those,” he said.

“A lot of these buildings are very low-barrier, so people are coming in right off the street or right from a shelter, and a number will be using substances or have mental health concerns, or both together, in older buildings. All of these create increased fire risk.”

VFRS says rechargeable batteries are also causing fires in SRO buildings. Many of these batteries are used in e-bikes and e-scooters, Trudeau says, adding in many cases, the batteries are “modified” inside SRO units.

“The incompatibility of the charging system … will overload it, sending the batteries into a thermal runaway effect,” he said. “So we’ve got lots of layers of complexity, creating higher risk in these buildings.”

Firefighters are dealing with the situation in mutliple ways, one of which is through education.

Crews are actively working to help residents, managers, and owners of SROs understand risks and mitigation steps, Trudeau says.

VFRS is calling on the government to provide more support, to help firefighters deal with increasing calls. Governments of all levels have a role to play, Trudeau says, including through regulation.