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Muskoka Heights owner says fire rules are daunting

April 26, 2012 Written by Laura King
April 26, 2012, Midhurst, Ont. – The owner of the Muskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia, Ont., says fire departments could make it easier for people like him to understand their obligations under the lengthy and detailed fire code by providing a smaller, simplified manual that outlines responsibilities and expectations.

Dean Rushlow told the coroner’s inquest into four fire deaths at Muskoka Heights in 2009 that the magnitude of the documentation that retirement home owners are expected to absorb and understand is daunting, and suggested a more streamlined system.

Rushlow also suggested that a two-day train-the-trainer course for retirement-home owners and staff provided by the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal, which focuses on the fire code and fire-safety plans, would be a useful tool for better educating those who care for vulnerable occupants of facilities such as seniors homes.

The inquest into the Jan. 19, 2009, fire that killed four occupants of Muskoka Heights is its second week in Midhurst, Ont. The inquest has heard from Orillia Fire Chief Ralph Dominelli, several firefighters who responded to the fire call, health-care professionals, Muskoka Heights manager Gail Wilson, and personal care worker Denise Collins – the lone employee on duty of the morning of the blaze.

Coroner’s counsel Bhavna Bhangu asked Rushlow Thursday morning how he could have better prepared Muskoka Heights’ manager Gail Wilson to deal with the responsibilities outlined in the home’s fire-safety plan. Wilson had no experience running a retirement home.

“You’re the owner; you’re where the buck stops,” Bhangu said. “You’ve got a responsibility under the fire code to make sure the residents are safe . . . so how could you have done it better? Having heard the evidence so far, what would be a good way for you as an owner to communicate the responsibilities and to communicate them to your staff?”

Rushlow, who has said that he was a hands-off owner who knew little about running a retirement home, said more regular communication with the home’s manager about fire drills and fire safety would help.

Bhangu asked Rushlow what he learned from the fire in the unsprinklered home for 21 residents – some with Alzheimer’s, dementia and mobility problems – that he could apply to another seniors home he owns. Specifically, she asked Rushlow if he believes there should be more than one staffer on duty at night in homes with residents who have cognitive and mobility challenges.

Rushlow declined to say how many residents are in the retirement home he now owns – just that there are more than 21 – and at which he has one employee on duty at night. He said the ratio of staff to residents should depend on factors such as mobility of the occupants, and comparing the two facilities isn’t fair.

Rushlow said he couldn’t recall if he had read the fire-safety plan for Muskoka Heights after he bought the home in 2004. The home had been cited by Orillia Fire Department inspectors for fire-code infractions and had complied with repair orders.

Rushlow said that once he fixed the problems and received certificates for doing so, he did not check the fire-safety plan to make sure there were no other potential concerns.

“No. In my mind, every time I did receive a certificate, if there was something [else] wrong, I would have received something. I received notices of violation, they were fixed. So if there was something wrong . . . I understand now that this [the fire-safety plan] was a living document and I should have changed things in it . . .”

It wasn’t clear from Rushlow’s testimony what kind of certificates the home received, as fire departments do not issue such documentation.

Asked about the significance of the home’s fire safety plan, Rushlow said: “It was a document that the fire department required in order to get your certificate [to operate].”

Bhangu asked Rushlow to clarify the statement.

“So it’s a document that the fire department required so you could operate. Beyond that did it have any other significance to you?"

“No,” Rushlow said.

“Now, has your understanding of what it represents changed?” Bhangu asked.

“Sure it has,” Rushlow said.

“How has this educated you?” she asked.

“Obviously,” Rushlow said, “on my and my staff’s responsibilities in terms of whatever’s in that document . . . and also that that’s a document that you can’t download to the fire department to look at; it’s something you have to be responsible for all the time as an owner.”

Rushlow was further questioned Thursday morning by Graham Webb, who represents the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, and Norm Faever, the lawyer for the Ministry of Attorney General and the Office of the Fire Marshal, primarily about the other retirement home he operates, and about Muskoka Heights administrator Gail Wilson’s qualifications to manage Muskoka Heights.

Rushlow was to be back on the stand Thursday afternoon for questioning by the Orillia Fire Department’s lawyer, John Saunders.

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