Construction site fires spark security concerns

In a response to a string of construction-site fires in recent months, builders may soon be required to post overnight security guards at unfinished housing projects.

Kanata South Coun. Peggy Feltmate, a member of the city’s community and protective services committee, says these fires not only cause damage to the construction sites but, depending on the location of the site, create the potential to “lose existing homes.”

Feltmate described the particular danger of fires at infill construction sites, where structures are built in close proximity to existing buildings.

In Centretown, where new structures must be built in between the old, infill building is a regular occurrence. A fire on such a site could spread to nearby buildings and endanger the people living in them.

The request to the province, made by the community and protective services committee, asks for amendments to the Ontario Building Code and/or the Ontario Fire Code for sites that are larger than seven units.

“There are currently no legislative requirements in the Building Code and/or Fire Code to require supervision of construction sites during construction,” stated a Notice of Motion presented to the committee in August.

The committee’s report includes consultation with the Ottawa Fire Services.

“Construction sites can be a large target for vandalism, which we believe is the largest factor and fire risk with these sites . . . having a security service guard the premises when there are no workers present and building are in their vulnerable stage, will eliminate the greatest risk to fire at these sites,” the report says.

A building is most vulnerable when the wooden structures have yet to be covered in drywall but, says Joey Kroeger, a supervisor of construction sites for Dalcon Enterprises Inc., once they are covered they are “very hard to ignite.”

After a fire occurs, rebuilding is not only an annoyance for the workers, says Kroeger, but also for the people waiting to move into their new homes.

“People that were supposed to get those houses wouldn’t have them to move into,” says Kroeger.

But he says he doesn’t think it’s fair for contractors to have to pay for security for the rare times these fires occur.

“What do we pay police forces and other types of security for?” asks Kroeger.

“Why is there going to be more onus on us to spend money for security?”

Kroeger says if an arsonist’s fire causes damage to a site, “that’s what insurance is for.”

John Herbert, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Homebuilders’ Association, says construction sites already have security when the sites are not occupied, but it is not constant.

Security guards move between a few construction sites each night and contractors split the cost, he says.

Herbert says the committee’s request is a “well-intentioned, but naive motion that would only waste money.”

“This is a justice system problem, not a construction problem,” says Herbert, who suggests heavier sentences for arsonists as an alternative solution.

The Beaver Barracks, a new public housing development being built in Centretown at Metcalfe and Catherine streets, had an onsite fire at night in February.

Kim Menard, manager of development and construction for Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corp., the organization building the Beaver Barracks, said the fire was an accident and that apart from a broken window it caused “no damage to the building.”

But “if it had gotten into the interior,” said Menard, “it could have had greater implications.”

While there was no significant damage, Menard says CCOC has security around the site at night because there is “too much liability these days” to take chances.

Feltmate says it is now up to the province to review the committee’s request and she would be satisfied  with changes limited to infill sites.

“That was the direction we were leaning towards,” Feltmate says.