Repeat false alarms in Vancouver's SROs burdening residents, firefighters

The Hotel Canada SRO is pictured from across the street in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday January 4, 2023.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The Hotel Canada SRO is pictured from across the street in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday January 4, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A persistent number of false alarms in social housing buildings across Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are putting undue strain on firefighters, building staff and residents alike, renewing pressure on officials to find a solution to a problem that plagued the residences for years.

Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services said this week its crews responded to one "single-room occupancy hotel," or SRO, more than 500 times last year. More than half of those calls were for "smoking cigarettes or drugs" — false alarms for which the department said it would be sending a bill.

"VFRS is currently billing the building for each false alarm, prosecuting this building as well as multiple other SRO's for Fire Bylaw offences," read the Twitter post, which was quickly deleted.

The fire department declined repeated interview requests, so it remains unclear why the tweet was removed, but CBC News has since confirmed the SRO is Hotel Canada.

The 17-storey building at 518 Richards Street West on the Downtown Eastside is one of the largest SROs in the city, with nearly 150 rooms.

Robert Clark, who works as a cleaner in the building, said the number of false alarms is out of control.

"The smoke [alarm] alone has gone off each day in October," he said in an interview.

"Almost every single day, the fire engines come back here and they have to reset the smoke detectors each time."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Hotel Canada is operated by Atira Property Management, which runs more than a dozen such buildings across the city.

"The number looks big, but the issue is not unique to the Hotel Canada," said Atira's CEO, Janice Abbott, referring to the number of false alarm calls to the building last year.

"It's a function of the housing and the folks who are housed ... We have a high number of people who smoke."

Abbott said many of Atira's old, wooden buildings have "Stage 1" fire alarm systems, meaning any trigger of the smoke alarm is automatically reported to the fire department. She said Atira would consider downgrading the alarms, allowing time for staff to inform the fire department when there's no real danger, but slowing the response time comes with its own risks.

"We saw two fatalities in the Winters building in that fire and can see how it can go wrong and become a tragedy really quickly," said Vancouver City Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, referring to the deadly fire at the Winters Hotel in Gastown last April.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Abbott said Atira has been working with the fire department for three years, but hasn't found a solution that wouldn't compromise resident safety in the event of a real emergency.

She said the department has been billing the company for false alarms for "some time."

CBC News asked Atira to provide records for previous bills related to false alarms but the company did not respond by deadline.

Under the Vancouver Charter, the fire department can impose fees for repeated false alarms. Those fees can be tacked on to property taxes if the bill isn't paid.

"It's a pretty, pretty powerful regulatory and fee-recouping power that the city has," said Reece Harding, a partner with Young, Anderson who's practiced municipal law for more than 30 years.

Abbott said she didn't know why the department chose to tweet about Hotel Canada this time as the charge was "nothing new."

"That is an excellent question," she said.

As of Dec. 13, Vancouver Fire Chief Karen Fry said there had been 60 fire-related injuries and nine deaths in Vancouver in 2022.