Targeted Inspections in Surrey, BC: Part II

In this article, we continue our conversation with Chief Len Garis of the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service in British Columbia, Canada. You can access the first article here. In this second part of the interview, we talk more about the commercial work as well as some of the inspection work that Surrey has done on single family dwellings.

Darkhorse: Through this research you identified a better way to approach inspections. In simple terms, you’re prioritizing the non-compliant.

Len Garis: It’s more than just that. For example, for determining risk we find out if the structure is sprinklered or not. Does it have people that sleep there or not? Is it pre 1970? We looked at these criteria plus a host of others. Basically, we used the risk framework developed by the Alberta Fires Services. We evaluated systems all over the world and settled on that one as being the most appropriate. It’s a very thorough system that they’ve developed, though I’m not sure they’ve ever tested it.

We simplified it for our purposes, but the methodology seemed to be sound. It set out a path to quantify both the likelihood and magnitude of a fire.

Darkhorse: So putting this in practice, there may be some locations that go multiple years without an inspection...

Len Garis: That’s correct.

Darkhorse: ...but there may also be similar locations that you're inspecting multiple times per year.

Len Garis: That's right. That will be the end result, so that's going to be the future state for us.

Darkhorse: Okay, so you did this study back in the mid-2000s. When did you start actually making changes to the way you were prioritizing inspections and actually implementing this in your service?

Len Garis: Actually, the research continued right through to the present. We have a policy now where if we fall behind, we have prioritized lists to inspect. But what’s pre-empted this is that the Act that governs what we need to do has just changed. We’re closely aligned with the new Act, but we’re just sorting out the details of how it will impact us.

As I said, my initial goal was to create an argument for moving away from a prescriptive system. The requirement for prescriptive inspections has now changed and it's created a new environment.

Darkhorse: In addition to the work you did looking back at the prior data, did you ever study this in your actual service? Did you do a pilot study or a proof of concept at some point over the last few years?

Len Garis: Yes we did.

Darkhorse: Okay. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that?

Len Garis: The last thing that we did was in August of 2014. Basically we did a simulation model of what's occurred here in Surrey in terms of outcomes and then developed a tailored risk framework from it. We focused our efforts on these risk metrics and we looked at how people were lining up in terms of compliance. We then linked this back to the actual fires that occurred.

Darkhorse: What were the outcomes?

Len Garis: We expected to see the absolute number of fires decrease. And for the fires that did occur, we expected them to be smaller. To be more precise, we expected a drop in total fires, an increase in the proportion that were confined to the room of origin, and a drop in the proportion of those extending beyond the room of origin.   

In 2006 we had 724 fires and in 2015, that dropped to 470. In 2006, 58% of the fires that we attended were confined to the room of origin. In 2015, 67% were confined to the room of origin. In 2006, 42% of our fires extended beyond the room of origin and in 2015, that was 33%. The whole thing is moving in the right direction from a policy perspective.

We are also using a risk based and educational transaction process with not only the businesses that we need to inspect, but we are also profiling at-risk residential properties and we’re visiting and inspecting those too.

Darkhorse: Even single family residential dwellings?

Len Garis: Exactly.

Darkhorse: You expanded it beyond just the commercial or the traditionally areas that you inspect?

Len Garis: We actually started on the residential side. We built a risk model based on prior fires and then adjusted our inspections accordingly. We realized that simply being there, just visiting the single family dwellings makes a huge difference. Whenever we do a regulatory inspection, we use it as an opportunity to educate. We give them a pamphlet that says here's how you comply. Here's what we look for. Here’s what's important. And we measure that transaction actually took place as well.

Darkhorse: Have you been able to see results in the residential structure fires?

Len Garis: The results on the residential side are excellent. Residential structure fires have dropped by 45%. Death and injuries have dropped by 65%.

Darkhorse: Wow. Simply visiting higher risk residences, talking to them about compliance, and educating them about fire risk cuts your fires in half and your deaths by two thirds?

Len Garis: Exactly.