Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Can you see me now?

At 2:35 in the morning of January, 1981 a fire broke out in the Inn on the Park Hotel in Toronto. Six lives were lost. On Christmas day in 1992 the Oban Inn in Niagara on the Lake burned to the ground - no lives were lost. A hotel fire is probably the biggest worry a hotel owner has to live with. You have a building full of people who aren't really familiar with the building. You also have staff engaging in activities (i.e. cooking) and charged with operating and maintaining equipment that can sometimes increase the risk of fire if the proper procedures are not in place. As such, I can honestly say that among my colleagues in the hotel business, I don't know anyone who takes the responsibility of fire safety lightly. Having said that, dealing with the government officials who hold us accountable for our actions vis a vis fire safety can sometimes be a little stressful. The Inn on the Park fire is often sighted as the single most significant event in terms of formulating the thinking behind the current legislation and regulation around hotel fire safety. People charged with public safety don't like to be blamed when human lives are lost. The Oban Inn, a very old stucture with no record or drawings of it's original construction has since been rebuilt from pictures that previous guests submitted to help the owners reconstruct this treasure true to it's original form. When Ste. Anne's added 14,000 square feet of new building to our existing 24,000 square feet of old building in 2003 we were required to bring the old building up to today's standards. This was a reasonable, but very expensive proposition, but we managed to get through it. I should note that in my view, the most important part of fire safety is an early warning system (working smoke detection). Secondly, containment and easy egress out of the building is key. This is the main difference between the fire in a high rise building, and older low rise structures. In our case, one of the less onerous requirements of our upgrades was that we provide a source of water sufficient for fighting a fire, as the local municipality did not have such a source, given our rural location. To meet this requirement, we put in a large pond, and to make it easy to get the water out of the pond year round, we installed a hydrant close to the spa. This year, we found out that the hydrant needed to pass an inspection. I got a call that the hydrant inspection people were on property and that they thought I might want to participate in their inspection of my hydrant. I like my hydrant - it's kind of a little boy/man's ultimate toy. As such, I regularly (once or twice a year), open my hydrant and watch the water run out of it. I really didn't think there would be much to an inspection. Boy was I wrong! The inspection entailed hooking up a pump to the hydrant and pumping water backwards into the hydrant, then letting water flow out, to make sure there were no blockages in the 6 inch pipe that feeds the hydrant. It also involved making sure there was a screen on the pipe. I also got a lecture on the fancy wrench that is to be used to open the hydrant, to avoid over tightening, which can damage the seal. Finally, the hydrant needs to be painted so that it can be distinguished from the municipal hydrants (the closest municipal hydrant is 5 miles away), and so that the fire department would have no trouble finding it. I told the inspector that I didn't think ours needed painting (at a rate of $125 an hour) and I didn't like the idea of installing a screen, as I thought this was more likely to get blocked than an open ended 6 inch pipe. Well, guess what; even though water flowed freely and plentifully and our hydrant was municipal yellow, we failed the inspection! I'm such a naughty boy. To inflict punishment on myself, I took on the task of painting the hydrant red (not to be confused with painting the town red). I think I did a pretty nice job. Next I'm going to swim to the bottom of the pond and install a screen on the pipe. I'll probably have to hold my breath for a long time. Wish me luck.

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