May 29, 2012 – There appeared to be good news yesterday when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he’s concerned about the length of a technical review of fire safety in retirement homes and wants to speed up the months-long process.
The Liberal premier also said it’s not a question of whether sprinklers will be mandated in homes, but when and in which types of residences – retirement homes (B3) and/or long-term care facilities (B2).
“He said what we hoped he would say,” OAFC president Kevin Foster said Monday afternoon. “We have no reason to believe that we’re not going to see that take place.”
That’s great. But McGuinty’s seemingly positive spin – long on platitudes and short on details – was tempered by some interesting wording and a caveat from Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meileur that the province does not believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to fire safety for vulnerable residents.
“For example, the needs of urban versus rural residences differ greatly,” the minister said in a statement issued late Monday afternoon. “We also have to consider factors like the size of the facility, whether it has access to a municipal water system or is on a well.”
Baloney. The “needs” include development of adequate fire-safety plans that are regularly reviewed. The “needs” include enforcement and prosecution of home operators who fail to comply with building and fire codes. The “needs” include sprinklers to protect vulnerable residents, staff and the first responders who answer alarms. What does any of that have to do with rural versus urban?
It’s disappointing that so many seniors have died in unsprinklered retirement homes and so many advocates have worked so hard to educate politicians about the need for sprinklers, yet the minister remains so uninformed.
Meilleur made the same statement Friday night on CTV, after the coroner’s jury in the inquest into four fire deaths at the Muskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia released 39 recommendations, including yet another call (the fourth) for the mandatory retrofitting of retirement homes with sprinklers. That was just hours before two more seniors were killed in a retirement home fire in Hawkesbury, Ont., (which brought to 48 the number of seniors who have died in retirement home fires in Ontario since 1980.)
The OAFC’s Foster was questioned on CBC radio Monday morning about Meilleur’s assertion that there’s a difference between the needs of seniors living in urban retirement homes and those in rural areas. When I talked to Foster about the issue Monday afternoon, he was rather fired up (sorry!).
“People still need to be protected whether they’re in an urban or rural setting,” Foster said, “People are still people whether in urban or rural home. In fact, you would probably anticipate a greater fire-department response in an urban area so maybe there’s a greater dependency on a sprinkler application in a rural setting.”
Foster is becoming frustrated with misinformation (perpetuated, perhaps, by builders and owners of retirement homes) about sprinklers and the need to be on a municipal water supply – “If there can be a shower there can be a sprinkler,” Foster said. – and the Hollywood perception that the entire sprinkler system activates at once.
Really, though, everything that happened yesterday is just politics; in this case, politics 101, in which a big heaping mess flows downhill and ends up at the feet of Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek.
McGunity has been under pressure from the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association not to jump the gun on sprinklers at the expense of other fire-safety measures including suppression staffing. And don’t forget, the province owns many of Ontario’s 4,300 unsprinklered retirement homes and long-term care facilities, and would assume the cost to retrofit them all. The jury’s recommendations backed the premier into a corner on Monday after there were two more very preventable deaths over the weekend.
And so, a three-term Liberal premier said comforting words that made good headlines without committing to a clear path forward. Smart politicians don’t let raw emotions and reactions to tragic event drive the creation of on-the-spot policy making.
For the record, McGuinty said he wants to speed up the sprinkler review.
Then, it was the minister’s turn. She is charged with making the system work and doing so within very tight budget parametres. She needed to temper the premier’s enthusiasm for a fast fix by positioning the issue in the context of challenges and considerations.
And the fire marshal, a political appointee who reports to the minister and can not be out of step with her messaging, is in a difficult position: the fire service expects Wieclawek to show leadership on fire prevention and protection – it’s his mandate – but his political masters have competing agendas (maintaining the union’s support, costs of retrofitting their own retirement homes) and he operates within that orbit.
The OFM has not spoken publicly about the jury recommendations or Friday night’s fatalities but did respond to questions from Fire Fighting in Canada and said it will review the technical consultation work plan to see if there are any areas that can be expedited.
It did not provide a timeline for doing so but said the OFM will carefully review and respond to the coroner on each recommendation (that is applicable to the OFM).
Foster, ever the optimist, says he’s encouraged by the government’s response but still wonders about specifics for accelerating the technical review and wants changes implemented by the end of the year.
“The longer we wait the longer it’s put off,” he said.
The minister said the first consultation meeting on the technical review of fire safety for seniors is June 13. We’re circling the date on the calendar and we’re going to track the progress – or lack thereof – every step of the way.
In the meantime, we hope there are no more Hawkesbury- or Muskoka Heights-like incidents while the doddering pace of fire-policy politics strolls through consultations on things politicians have been warned about for decades.