The jury in a coroner’s inquest into the Winters Hotel fire that killed two people in Vancouver two years ago has recommended ending public funding for single-room-occupancy hotels in privately owned buildings.
It’s among more than two dozen recommendations, including that BC Housing work with operators and owners to ensure SRO buildings be held to higher fire safety standards than the minimum.
The inquest examined the deaths of Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay, whose bodies were found in the rubble of the hotel in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood more than a week after the April 11, 2022, fire.
The Winters Hotel was one of approximately 150 single-room housing buildings for some of Vancouver’s most vulnerable residents, who the jury heard are often on the verge of homelessness.
It was operated by Atira Property Management, with funding from B.C. Housing, but owned by Peter Plett.
About 70 tenants lived in the more than 100-year-old building when lit candles left on a bed started the fire that swept quickly though.
Sprinklers didn’t work on day of fire
The jury heard that the old structure was not designed with the same protections to slow the spread of fire that come in more modern buildings. Its sprinkler system didn’t work on the morning of the blaze because it hadn’t been reset since a smaller fire three days earlier.
Among the jury’s recommendations was a call for a “resource team” that can be called out during critical incidents to provide additional staffing and support the front-line workers and managers in these type of buildings.
“The jury heard evidence that staff are overwhelmed during emergencies,” the foreperson told coroner John Knox while delivering the recommendations.
After the fire, officials with Atira initially reported that all tenants who lived in the building were accounted for.
The inquest jury recommended the Vancouver Police Department work with the operators of SROs to develop best practices for finding missing people “so that tenants are considered missing until they are located or their safety is confirmed by a reliable witness who has direct knowledge.”
The jury ruled the deaths of Garlow, 63, and Guay 53, as accidental, caused by thermal injuries and smoke inhalation.
During the two-week inquest, jury members heard that staff tried to get Guay, who was severely hearing impaired, aids like a flashing light or a vibrating bed to alert him to emergencies, but did not hear back from officials with BC Housing.
Upgrade fire precautions
The jury recommended the government consider legislative or other changes to fully fund all assistive devices for residents in single-room buildings with mobility or hearing disabilities.
They said fire precautions should be upgraded to include backup fire extinguishers and a “buddy system” to help people with disabilities in the event of a fire.
The jury recommended the City of Vancouver and the local health authority create a full-time mobile team to support firefighters responding to critical incidents.
They said the team should include staff capable of responding to the complex needs of tenants in rooming houses, such as social workers, psychiatric nurses and mental health support workers.