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Winters Hotel Manager Waited Days to Call Fire Company

More support was needed, she said in tearful testimony at an inquest into two deaths.

Jen St. Denis 26 Jan 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

The Winters Hotel building manager told an inquest Thursday that she received minimal training when she was hired to run the high-risk building with vulnerable tenants in 2020.

Gina Vanemberg also told the coroner’s inquest that she immediately called a restoration company to remediate water damage after a smaller fire on Friday, April 8, 2022.

But despite being ordered by the fire department to immediately reset the building alarm and sprinkler after the Friday evening fire, she did not call a fire service company until the morning of Monday, April 11, because she did not believe the company would be able to come after hours and Atira Property Management employees had been encouraged not to incur extra charges when contractors came outside of normal business hours.

Winters residents Dennis Guay and Mary Ann Garlow died during a massive fire in the building on April 11, 2022. At the time of the fire, the building had no working alarm or sprinkler system and many of the fire extinguishers were empty.

Vanemberg testified that she had asked BC Housing for an adaptive alarm — flashing lights or a vibrating bed — for tenant Guay, who was hearing impaired. But Vanemberg said she never heard back from the provincial housing agency.

Vanemberg made the comments during the fourth day of the inquest into the deaths of Guay and Garlow. Her testimony followed statements by John Claxton, the front desk clerk on duty at the time of the fire, who told the inquest that while he knew Guay was hearing impaired, he didn’t know of any plan or procedures to make sure he was alerted in case of fire.

The Winters Hotel was operated as supportive housing for low-income people by Atira Property Management, with funding from BC Housing. The building housed a wide range of people, from seniors to younger residents, some in active addiction or with mental health challenges or other disabilities.

Vanemberg said that although Atira had a “red book” on fire safety that described how to do fire drills, she never conducted any drills with residents from the time she started as building manager in March 2020 to the time of the fire in April 2022.

Vanemberg said that when she started at the building, pandemic restrictions prevented people from gathering, making it impossible to do the drills in 2020. But she acknowledged that fire drills did not happen even when those restrictions were lifted.

She said she was not familiar with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services’ official guidelines on how to conduct a fire watch.

Vanemberg said her staff knew they were supposed to be doing regular fire watch patrols after an April 8 fire, because she wrote a message in a logbook, which should have got passed along to the next shift.

Tenants were not informed that the building was on fire watch, Vanemberg testified.

Vanemberg said that when new tenants arrived, they were not given information about fire safety as part of their welcome to the building. She said it was unlikely that more recent tenants knew where the building’s muster point — the place outside the building where staff and residents were supposed to go if the building had to be evacuated — was located.

Vanemberg, who was often visibly upset during her testimony, was questioned by various lawyers at the inquest about her actions after the smaller fire on Friday, April 8. That fire is important to the inquest because it led to orders from the fire department to fix the sprinklers and building alarm and run fire watch patrols until the reset was done.

Vanemberg said firefighters did not go over the fire safety violation order in detail and she did not call the Winters’ contracted fire service company, Royal City Fire Supplies, that night because in the past she had been told by Royal City Fire that no one would be able to come until Monday morning.

Instead, Vanemberg waited until the morning of April 11 to call Royal City Fire Supplies and book an appointment for 3 p.m. that day.

Earlier in the inquest, fire captain Kris Zoppa said the fire safety violation notice states that problems must be fixed “immediately” and that a four-day wait to fix sprinklers and the building alarm is not acceptable. Zoppa also said he erred when he did not order the empty fire extinguishers to be replaced.

Vanemberg told the inquest that the evening of April 8 was extremely hectic. Firefighters wanted to review the building’s security camera footage, she had to call in a restoration company to start cleaning up the water damage from the sprinklers and she had to rehouse seven residents whose rooms had been damaged by water.

She also had to complete two reports to file with Atira on the April 8 fire.

She said it was around 1:30 a.m. when she was finally able to leave, and she was at the same time dealing with a personal health issue that led to her going to the hospital the next day.

At times overcome with tears, Vanemberg testified she knew Guay and Garlow well and had often spent time with them.

“Dennis would come into my office every month to pay his rent and he’d sit and talk with me for an hour,” she said.

“When I first arrived at the hotel, I’d say hello to Mary every day for six months and finally she started talking to me.”

Vanemberg said she could have used more help and resources to deal with the aftermath of the April 8 fire.

When asked what she would recommend to help avoid a similar tragedy, Vanemberg said Atira staff need much more training to handle emergency situations.  [Tyee]

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