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May 17, 2012
By Laura King


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May 16, 2012, Midhurst, Ont. – There was further clarification yesterday at the inquest into four fire fatalities at the Muskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia, Ont., about the number of firefighters required to rescue residents in the event of fire.

May 16, 2012, Midhurst, Ont. – There was further clarification yesterday at the inquest into four fire fatalities at the Muskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia, Ont., about the number of firefighters required to rescue residents in the event of fire.

Earlier this week Dennis Gannon, operations manager for the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM), testified at the inquest and was quoted in a local newspaper saying two firefighters and a director would be required for each resident needing rescue. That caused confusion among Ontario fire-service leaders, who questioned the ratio of three firefighters for each resident and wondered about the methodology used to ascertain the numbers.

As we noted on Tuesday, the term director also caused a bit of confusion, but Mr. Gannon later clarified to me that he meant a fire officer or incident commander.

The OFM’s newly appointed assistant deputy fire marshal, Trevor Bain, further explained all this Wednesday morning, under questioning by John Saunders, the lawyer for the City of Orillia and its fire department.

“Every time there’s someone needing rescue in a building, as I understand it, it’s not necessary to have three people to go into the building to perform rescue,” Saunders said. “The officer is outside and the two firefighters go in.”

Saunders used Orillia’s Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, with 230 beds, as an example.

“It would not be the perspective of the fire marshal’s office that there should the three times 230 beds worth of firefighters on the scene if there should be a incident there.”

“I would agree with you,” Bain said.

“And, so any report that were to say that would be incorrect.”

“Yes.”

There was some discussion at the inquest yesterday of the so-called risk document, a workbook put out by the OFM in 2010 that helps fire departments and municipalities determine the numbers of responders necessary for incidents in certain buildings in their jurisdiction.

Essentially, the document – called Operational Planning: an Official Guide to Matching Resources and Risk – is a tool for fire departments to use to help municipal councils understand what resources are necessary to safely respond, and to help councils set response levels.

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario initially opposed the document because it addressed only resource deployment and did not consider other components of the OFM’s own comprehensive fire safety effectiveness model, which includes fire risk, fire prevention program effectiveness, public attitude, detection capabilities, built-in suppression capabilities, intervention time and fire-ground effectiveness.

The OAFC has been working with the OFM on a companion workbook that addresses fire prevention and public education – what the OFM calls the first two lines of defence in fire protection. The fire-prevention workbook would complement the risk-assessment document and help departments and municipalities reduce the risks in certain buildings so that the defined response level can be met (you can read more about it here).

Sean McManus, lawyer for the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association, asked the OFM’s Bain about the rationale for the document.

“I think it was greatly influenced by the former fire marshal [Pat Burke],” Bain said, “who wanted to take the fire service beyond risk assessment of simply considering the response to single, detached dwellings.

“This is intended to be a more comprehensive approach to fire-ground staffing in the Province of Ontario, so it’s presented as a guide for that purpose . . . regarding the ability to staff as appropriate in consideration of the fire risk [departments] might meet in a given structure.”

McManus noted that the risk document was compiled to comply with a recommendation from an earlier coroner’s inquest that urged the OFM to develop a guideline to help fire departments.

Bain had earlier explained that the document is a guideline that departments and municipalities are encouraged to use “so they can make informed decisions regarding the delivery of fire suppression services.”

McManus asked Bain about the use of the words encourage and guideline, and whether use of the document is mandatory for Ontario fire departments.

Bain noted that municipalities are required under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act to set levels of service, and the OFM is responsible for providing guidelines to municipalities to help them set those service levels.

“The OFM is only doing what is our obligation, and so we are providing these guidelines,” Bain said.

“At the end of the day, it’s what asked of us in the legislation, and we do what’s asked of us. In the absence of anything else [is it] mandatory? No, but it would seem that it would be irresponsible not to consider the advice and assistance provided to the municipalities by the province.”

“So the encourage part is the non-mandatory part,” McManus asked.

“Yes,” Bain said.

Under questioning by Saunders, Bain noted that although the risk-assessment document is available for departments to use, “we’re not aggressively promoting it within the fire service but there are certainly fire services that are making use of it an taking it under consideration.”

Bear with me. This is complicated.

There are much larger issues looming over the coroner’s inquest into four fire deaths at the Muskoka Heights retirement home:
• the level of service provided by fire departments, particularly volunteer and composite departments;
• the question of fire-safety plans for homes for vulnerable occupants and responsibility for the execution of those plans, versus the liability of the fire chief or fire prevention officer if the plans have not been tested by the fire department or are not executed properly during a fire;
• supervisory staffing requirements for homes for vulnerable residents.

In Ontario, fire-safety plans are approved by the fire chief and/or the fire prevention officer, but building owners are responsible for safely evacuating residents when the fire alarm sounds.

Fire-safety plans outline several responsibilities and staffing requirements for these types of homes to ensure there are enough workers on duty to safely get residents out of the building, among other things. (There was a lone personal care worker on duty at Muskoka Heights the morning of the fire.)

In light of the fatalities and the inquest, fire chiefs have been urged by the OAFC and the OFM to make sure that fire-safety plans for these types of occupancies are viable – that staff can evacuate residents in a specified time frame – before approving the plans.

The issue, of course, is liability: if a fire chief, or fire-prevention officer, approves a fire-safety plan that can not be executed during a fire because residents are feeble and can not move quickly enough, or because one staff member can not evacuate all residents, the chief or FPO may be held civilly liable if there are injuries or fatalities.

The inquest is expected to wrap up next week after four weeks of testimony from firefighters, Orillia Fire Chief Ralph Dominelli, the home’s owner and its manager, representatives from the Office of the Fire Marshal, fire-service experts and advocates for seniors.

The inquest is looking specifically at fire safety in retirement homes – it is not meant to address the overlying issues of response levels or responsibility/liability. Lawyers were to meet yesterday afternoon to begin discussing recommendations – which are expected to be similar to those of three other coroner’s inquests into fire deaths in seniors homes.

But with few of those earlier recommendations having been implemented (the call for mandatory sprinklers, in particular), the Muskoka Heights inquest holds more weight for the Ontario fire service, which is up to its collective ears in some fairly ugly issues: the Meaford trial (responsibility, liability, accountability); the Point Edward trial (responsibility, liability, accountability); confusion over fire-safety plans in homes for vulnerable occupants (responsibility, liability, accountability), and fire-department response levels.

I told you it was complicated.


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