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City was warned of downtown safety issues before fatal fire

Union moving forward with further analysis

Oshawa fire fighters on scene at the Jan. 8 Centre Street fire.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The union representing Oshawa fire fighters had warned senior fire officials of potential issues with downtown Oshawa even before a fire broke out at 116 Centre Street, killing four people, concerns that appear to be backed by a recently released report.

That fire, on Jan. 8 around 8 a.m. in Oshawa’s downtown, lead to the deaths of 36-year-old Lindsay Bonchek, and her two children, nine-year-old Maddie, and four-year-old Jackson. 50-year-old Steven Macdonald saved his pregnant daughter from the fire, but when he rushed back into the burning building to try and save others he never made it back out.

According to a recent report from International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), commissioned by the Oshawa Professional Fire Fighters Association, the city has potential issues when it comes to their downtown fire resources.

“The area of Oshawa where the fatal fire occurred, based on census data from Statistics Canada, has a disproportionate number of residents that have an increased likelihood of being injured or killed in fires as compared to the city overall,” the report reads. “Typically, when there are high numbers of vulnerable citizens and older buildings constructed before current fire codes developed, there is an increased demand on emergency services. Given the factors for housing and population, it is likely OFS has a steady call volume particularly in and around the area of the fatal fire.”

Peter Dyson, the president of the Oshawa fire fighter’s union, points specifically to the opening of Fire Hall 6 in the city’s north end, and the shifting of resources from the downtown Station 1 to that location in April 2017. After that, he says the union shared their concerns with senior management at city hall.

“The association has been asking questions and trying to work with management to alleviate concerns prior to, but when Station 6 opened, that’s when they started moving stuff around in the city,” Dyson says.

For Dyson, the union was not surprised with the reports findings.

“I think as an association we’ve been looking at this kind of stuff for quite some time,” he says. “But after the fatal fire on Centre Street, I think that was a tipping point for us and that’s why we decided to commission this first initial report moving forward on the larger report.”

That larger report being a city wide risk assessment that would analyze demographic and socioeconomic composition of the city to better match fire service resources where they are most needed.

“We think this would ensure that frontline resources match risk and demand,” Dyson says. “It would incorporate the demographic and sociological composition of Oshawa.”

Such a report would come at no cost to the City of Oshawa, Dyson says. However, with that said, Dyson notes the city seems to be unwilling to cooperate.

“The response we got from the city prior to us releasing that initial report is that they don’t believe that the IAFF should be studying fire department response issues in Oshawa,” Dyson says. “They told us it’s not our job, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’ve already been told that they will not read the report, but we are going to move forward with it anyway because we think it’s important and the citizens of Oshawa deserve it.”

To date, the union has filed Freedom of Information requests to obtain call data for the past three years to assist in the report. It’s information the city has been reluctant to share.

“What we find unfortunate is that the management of the fire service, the fire chief, up to this point, and senior management in the city, have rebuffed our asking them to release call data,” Dyson says. “That’s concerning for us. I think as an association we have a responsibility to investigate our members health and safety in terms of responding to fires. Also, we are a stakeholder and we should be at the table with management and with the city as we look at resource deployment and allocation in the city.”

And what has the Oshawa Fire Services had to say following the union’s report being released?

“Nothing,” Dyson says, noting that they have received no response.

Request for comment left with fire chief Derrick Clark, who has been away, and deputy chief Todd Wood, were not returned as of The Oshawa Express press deadline.

For Mayor John Henry, the city’s Fire Master Plan, laid out all the reasoning for shifting a fire truck from Station 1 to Station 6, and it allowed the city to not only cover more area with the same resources, but also improve response times, he says.

“The truck wasn’t any slower getting to that fire that day than they get to fires on any day,” he says. “We’ve improved the dispersion of fire trucks throughout the city to get the first truck there faster than even before…We met the needs and the growth in the end of the city by relocating a truck. But I want the residents of Oshawa to understand, we have not cut services, we still run the same number of trucks.”

When questioned by The Express as to the city’s reported lack of cooperation with the union, Mayor Henry pointed out that he sat down with Dyson on Feb. 13, the day he was voted in as president of the union.

“I’m going to say if you can get to the mayor’s office within a few days of a phone call for a meeting, I’m not sure that’s being uncooperative,” he says. “I’m on the street every day in a marked vehicle, I’m out and about, and I speak to everyone who approaches me at all times.”

In terms of the city’s lack of sharing information, which has led the union to filing lengthy and potentially costly FOIs, Mayor Henry noted that “there’s been times in this office where I’ve filed FOIs to get information that I need,” he said.

As for the reports findings, and concerns it raises about the amount of vulnerable people living in aging infrastructure, Mayor Henry, noted that Oshawa would not be alone in that department.

“That same story would be the same in every city that’s ever been built, that the age of our downtown is not much different than the age of Clarington’s, Bowmanville’s downtown, or Whitby’s downtown, that public safety is absolutely key,” he says. “If there was a problem here in town, I’m sure that the chief would bring it to the table.”