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May 27, 2012
By Laura King


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May 28, 2012, Toronto - Irony.

My in box was buzzing yesterday morning with news that two seniors – a couple, 84 and 87 – died in a fire at an unsprinklered retirement home in Hawkesbury, Ont., Friday night.

The fire happened
hours after the coroner’s jury looking into fire safety in homes for seniors released
39 recommendations to better protect these vulnerable residents, including
mandatory retrofitting with sprinklers, more staffing, better systems for
evacuating residents and regular fire drills.

The
e-mails ranged from cynical to frustrated to infuriated with the slow pace of
change in the province of Ontario given that the Muskoka Heights jury is the
fourth to call for mandatory sprinklers and the fact that 48 seniors have died
in retirement home fires in Ontario since 1980.

Equally
alarming is the fact that the news stories on Friday night’s fire says  firefighters spent an hour evacuating the 90 residents
from the three-storey building through windows and balconies.

From everything
I’ve learned about fire-safety plans and responsibility/liability in the last
several months, my understanding is that it’s the responsibility of retirement
home owners and their staff to quickly, safely and efficient get residents out
of the building in a specified amount of time – generally between three and six
minutes, and often before firefighters arrive – and to meet the requirements of
the fire-safety plan (hence the call in Friday’s recommendations for a better
system).

The
problem? The issue is a political hot potato. Three previous coroner’s juries
have recommended mandatory sprinklers and other measures to improve safety in
retirement homes, but, in the words of John Saunders, the lawyer for the
Orillia Fire Department at the Muskoka Heights corner’s inquest, the Ontario
government continues to drag its feet while more seniors die in fires.

Why? Some
say it’s because of political pressure from the Ontario Professional Fire
Fighters Association, which has backed Liberal Premier Dalton McGunity in the
last two provincial elections.

While the
OPFFA openly supports sprinklers, it notes in a 2010 letter to former community
safety minister Rick Bartolucci that “increasing public and firefighter safety
through technology is only part of the solution.”

“With the
continued focus on one side of this issue, we are concerned that there will be
too much emphasis and faith placed in technology, resulting in a false sense of
security.”

The
letter says fire suppression is a labour-intensive issue and that the ability
to arrive on scene quickly with the resources necessary to conduct interior
rescue is a critical factor in the survivability in any structure fire,
especially a nursing home.

I’ll let
you read between the lines, but think about volunteer fire departments and the
time it takes for mutual aid to arrive, and the fact that there are hundreds of
retirement homes in Ontario, many of them in communities served by volunteer
departments, and some of the owned by . . . the provincial government.

The union
notes that it welcomes the installation of sprinklers as an additional safety
measure but urges the government to consider other factors including code
compliance, implementing approved fire-safety plans and proper emergency
response capabilities before “simply passing legislation mandating sprinklers
and assuming all lives will be saved.”

“We
caution the government in reacting without consultation with all stakeholders
and consideration of all factors to ensure scarce budget dollars available are
utilized to their maximum potential.”

I talked
to OPFFA president Fred Leblanc about the union’s position on this back in 2010
to make sure I clearly understood the issues (you can read more about that in
this blog).

LeBlanc said at the time that, “What we’re
advocating is that sprinklers should be an add on and not a replacement for
other safety measures.” In other words, he said, sprinklers should not be
viewed as a replacement for proper staffing in these retirement homes. Fair
enough, and, indeed, fire-service leaders and the jury in the Muskoka Heights
inquest agree that staffing of these homes is an issue (as we’ve mentioned
numerous times, there was a lone personal-care worker on duty at Muskoka
Heights the morning of the fire).

Essentially,
though, as the union president advocating for 10,000 members, LeBlanc is also saying
that money for sprinklers shouldn’t come at the expense of money for fire
fighting jobs and proper equipment for departments – also fair enough.

But let’s
give our heads a shake. Sprinklers protect residents and firefighters. Ask the firefighters who pulled the residents out
of Muskoka Heights and Place Mont Roc if they would rather have been in a
sprinklered building.

In
Ontario, there are 31 career fire departments and more than 400 volunteer
departments, which is part of the reason the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs
and others, like Niagara Falls Deputy Chief Jim Jessop, are pushing for
sprinklers, and are working with the likes of Ian Davidson, deputy minister of
community safety, and Labour Minister Linda Jeffreys, who is also the minister responsible
for seniors.

As National
Post columnist Christie Blatchford so eloquently puts it in her column, “
Over
to Dalton McGuinty and gang.”

 

 


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