High-rise Emergency Preparedness in Toronto

By Tyler Andrews, Senior Policy Analyst at Infrastructure Canada, working primarily on projects related to structural disaster mitigation and brownfield redevelopment.

The City of Toronto has experienced a significant evolution in its urban fabric over the past 10 to 15 years as residential high-rise buildings have become a major focus for property developers and a lifestyle of choice for many Torontonians. Toronto now ranks second only to New York City in terms of the number of high-rise buildings within the city, making it a vibrant and changing city with unique emergency preparedness considerations. The diverse risks and preparedness challenges for those living in high-rise buildings have not been thoroughly explored in the literature, and especially not within the Canadian context. The purpose of this study was to develop an understanding of the processes and emergency preparedness activities that residents of high-rise buildings in Toronto were undertaking, and what activities could be implemented to build a more prepared city.

Results were collected through an online survey completed through a convenience sample of 90 participants. Of the respondents, 59.1% had lived in a high-rise building for less than five years, 28.9% had lived in a high-rise building for five to 10 years and 12% of respondents had lived in high-rise buildings for more than 10 years. In addition, just under half of the respondents owned their residence, while 34.1% rented from a building management company, and 20.5% rented their residence from a condo owner.

The development of emergency kits and emergency plans has been a primary focus of a number of emergency preparedness campaigns initiated by all levels of government. Even though these are among the most commonly recommended actions citizens can take to prepare, very few respondents had taken the time to develop either. Only 21.6% of respondents indicated they had developed an emergency kit, while 21.3% indicated they had an emergency plan. Of those who had developed an emergency plan, almost 70% indicated that all members of their household were aware of the plan, what it contained and how to use it. Respondents who had not developed an emergency kit or plan were asked about their likelihood of developing one in the future and why they had decided not to develop. Only 38% of respondents indicated they may consider developing one in the next few months, while 62% said they were unlikely to do so. Almost 50% ofrespondents indicated they had never thought of developing an emergency plan, while the second most popular response was the respondent  was  single  and  didn’t  think  an  emergency plan would be helpful or necessary for them during an emergency. Fourteen percent of respondents indicated either that they didn’t know they should have an emergency plan or that they didn’t know how to develop one.

Respondents were also asked several questions regarding their perceptions of living in high-rise buildings. First, respondents were asked about knowledge of their building’s emergency plan and  whether they had ever been informed of it. Almost 66% of respondents indicated that they had not been informed of their building’s emergency plan. About 56% of respondents indicated that they had experienced a fire drill in their building, while only 19% of respondents actually evacuated their unit during the drill. A number of reasons were offered as to why units were not evacuated during emergencies. Thirteen respondents indicated it was inconvenient for them to leave, while another 13 indicated they were informed that the fire drill was only a test and they did not need to evacuate.

Respondents were also asked about their perceptions of living in high-rise buildings and how this may make them either more or less vulnerable during emergencies. Almost a quarter of respondents indicated they felt less safe in a high- rise building than in a detached or semi-detached house, but nearly 40% indicated they were “neutral”  on this statement while 40% indicated that living in a high-rise building was safer than a single house. Several scenarios were provided including severe weather and power outages, and in both circumstances, respondents indicated they felt their units would be very safe in these situations. Generally, the results from this survey correlate with other studies that have examined household preparedness, and demonstrate that despite continued efforts by all levels of government, preparedness does not often enter into the public psyche. Below are a series of recommendations that are based on results from the survey.

  • Target emergency preparedness programs towards singles. This survey clearly indicated that a majority of residents of high-rise buildings do not have children and many live alone. By targeting emergency preparedness programs at individuals who are single, they may develop a better understanding of the importance of developing emergency kits and plans, understanding that preparedness is not just something targeted towards families with.
  • Present preparedness information in interesting and relevant ways. Preparedness information that is presented in interesting and relevant ways may make people more likely to discuss it amongst their social circles. In addition, a number of respondents to this survey indicated they would find information concerning emergency preparedness available in their building’s elevators interesting.
  • Engage in social capital. Training volunteers and staff members on how to communicate emergency preparedness activities to community groups and at schools may help encourage emergency preparedness activities at home by starting conversations. New York City’s “Ready New York”  program is but one example.