Photo: Wiki/ GFDL, Cc-by-sa-3.0

The Citadel and the Old Town Clock in Halifax actually merit that over-used adjective, “iconic.” Both are stand-out examples of the built heritage that defined the port city before high-rise developments shot up to overshadow their distinctive architectural features.

The fortifications at the top of the Hill overlooking the harbour date back to the founding of the City in 1749. The Old Town Clock on the grassy slope below has been watching over Haligonians since 1803, when Prince Edward, the father of grumpy Queen Victoria and the Commander-in-Chief of British soldiers at the garrison, had the public time-piece designed and presented as a gift to the people of Halifax.

So, when an astute reader wrote to the Examiner questioning whether enough is being done to protect the Clock and the Citadel National Historic Site in the event of a fire, it seemed worth checking out.

Parks Canada is responsible for both landmarks. It turns out neither the Clock nor the fortress is protected by a sprinkler system because the pump that feeds the sprinklers hasn’t worked in more than year.

“The fire protection water pump for the National Historic Site is located in the basement of the Old Town Clock,” states Jeff Lansing, communications officer in Nova Scotia for Parks Canada. “A water system failure in May 1, 2018 flooded the basement and caused damage to the fire protection water pump. As a result, the sprinkler system and fire hydrants are not currently functional in the Halifax Citadel or in the Old Town Clock.”

That sounded worrisome. The email goes on to try to alleviate concerns.

“However, Parks Canada and the local fire department have a plan in place in case of a fire. Specifically, there is a hookup on site for pumper trucks. Additionally, fire officials have advised Parks Canada that there are no public safety issues.”

We asked for further clarification with respect to that single “hookup” that fire trucks can use when called to the scene of a fire. Lansing took the question to the General Works manager for Parks Canada in Halifax. He wrote back to say “The Halifax Citadel National Historic Site has a hookup on the outside of the Old Town Clock where a pumper truck can connect and draw water from the city water supply”.

So at the present time, the Old Town Clock and the star-shaped, 18th century fortress are protected by one location where pumper trucks can draw water in the event of a fire. It seems like a long stretch to the top of the Hill. It’s also unsettling to think there is no timeline for the repair of the pump that’s supposed to deliver water to the sprinkler system and fire hydrants in these revered structures.

“Parks Canada will be tendering the work to repair the water pump in the near future,” states Lansing.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been any water up there on Citadel Hill. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind that’s desirable. A $1.1 million project on the Clock began in July 2018 to repair the roof, the windows, and some rotting wood after water got in. The Clock face has been repainted and with the face-lift complete, the hands are working again after a year when Time (and the internal clockworks) literally stood still. Below ground, where the pump that feeds the sprinkler systems for both structures is located, not much is happening.

Parks Canada tells us that in addition to having a place where pumper trucks can access water if a blaze breaks out, the Citadel has had a recent upgrade to its fire alarm system. Since 2018, Commissionaires on duty have immediately been able to identify the location of a fire by virtue of smoke-detectors which have their own individual address and trigger the alarm system in the case of a fire. Prior to that, the previous alarm system depended on some “investigation” before the location of the blaze could be determined.

That’s good to know because until sprinkler protection returns, time will be of the essence to summon fire fighters to put out any blaze threatening to destroy the best living example of physical heritage from Halifax’s past. Thank you, dear reader.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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