www.firefightingincanada.com

Features Blogs Editor's Blog
Editor’s blog


January 28, 2014
By Laura King


Topics

Jan. 28, 2014, Toronto – There has been lots of talk of sprinklers in the days since the fire in a seniors home in L’Isle-Verte, Que., killed as many as 32 people. That’s good. It’s also tragic that more people had to die before Quebec politicians started talking seriously about better fire-protection measures for vulnerable citizens.
But sprinklers alone won’t solve the problem.

Jan. 28, 2014, Toronto – There has been lots of talk of sprinklers in the days since the fire in a seniors home in L’Isle-Verte, Que., killed as many as 32 people. That’s good. It’s also tragic that more people had to die before Quebec politicians started talking seriously about better fire-protection measures for vulnerable citizens.

But sprinklers alone won’t solve the problem.

As we’ve learned in Ontario, a combination of sprinklers, a rapid fire-suppression response, and measures such as an approved fire-safety plan, inspections, fire drills, automatic fire doors, evacuation protocols and adequate staffing are crucial.

Staffing was a key issue at the inquest into the four deaths at the unsprinklered Muskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia, Ont., five years ago.

As was the case in the 52-room L’Isle-Verte home early last Thursday morning where two employees were on duty (only one was required by law), Muskoka Heights was woefully understaffed (but not in violation of any regulations) – with just a single personal-care worker overseeing the 21 residents in the early morning hours of Jan. 19, 2009.

That young woman, Denise Collins, shepherded several seniors out of the burning, three-storey building before firefighters arrived and was credited with saving lives.

But what I remember most from the inquest was Muskoka Heights owner Dean Rushlow on the stand, saying that the fire-safety rules for seniors homes were too complicated – there was too much to read and absorb, he said – and that fire departments should provide a Coles Notes sort of manual so that owners could more quickly and easily understand their fire-safety obligations. (Imagine Rushlow’s dilemma now that there are considerably more rules and regulations as of Jan. 1, in addition to mandatory sprinklers for older homes.)

Even worse, Rushlow owned two other retirement homes and, under questioning, said he had no plans to change the staffing arrangements in those facilities, which were both larger than Muskoka Heights and had minimal staff on duty overnight.

By all accounts, the L’Isle-Verte home had an excellent reputation. But as we know, most of the residents relied on walkers or wheelchairs; at least one was blind, another was deaf. With two people on duty overnight, should a fire occur in the unsprinklered part of the home, immobile residents had no chance of escape. Yet it would be fiscally impossible – from the perspective of both the owners and the residents who pay for accommodation and care – to provide one-to-one staffing; therefore, maximum fire-prevention and fire-protection measures are the only logical solution.

The volume of work tackled by the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) on this file in the two years since the Muskoka Heights jury issued 39 recommendations is commendable, although, as Health Minister Deb Matthews noted on the weekend, some measures – such as retrofitting provincially owned homes with sprinklers by 2025 – need to be expedited. (There’s also the issue of the definition of group homes – some are covered under the new rules, some aren’t – but that’s another debate.)

The Quebec government made some fire-safety improvements to seniors homes in 2012 and more are being phased in. But from what I read on the weekend, they’re nowhere near as detailed as the Ontario changes, and do not include retrofitting. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said Sunday that a committee has been looking into safety in seniors homes and she will wait for that report before making changes but acknowledged that if the committee calls for sprinklers, the government will listen.

Back to staffing. In December, the OFMEM issued a directive on fire drills and fire safety inspections for seniors’ homes. Essentially, home owners and the municipality’s chief fire official need to agree on a fire-drill scenario that demonstrates the lowest staffing level necessary to respond to the room of fire origin, remove occupants from the room, close the door, evacuate residents from the zone to the next point of safety and carry out all other duties under the fire-safety plan.

This is not rocket science. People who can’t walk or see need help at the best of times, let alone in an emergency. And one or two people can’t carry out the tasks assigned in the fire-safety plan when there’s an emergency.

Indeed, Nicole Bélanger, one of about two dozen staff who worked at the L’Isle-Verte seniors’ home before the fire, told The Globe and Mail yesterday that the building had an evacuation plan to deal with fires and held regular drills to ensure residents were prepared for an emergency.

“But they did the practices during the day, when there were a lot of attendants, a lot of staff on hand. And this time, it had to happen overnight. These people take pills to fall asleep, they can’t just wake up abruptly,” she said. “It was very fast, the fire.”

Ontario had the dubious distinction of having more of its seniors die in retirement-home fires than any other province before it heeded the recommendations of four coroner’s inquests and mandated sprinklers. Now, remarkably – and despite years of foot-dragging – the province is among the country’s leaders in fire safety for seniors.

In Edmonton, Fire Chief Ken Block told Global News on the weekend that of 121 seniors residences in that city, 49 are not spinklered, are considered high risk and there are no retrofitting requirements.

There is also concern among seniors’ advocates in British Columbia about lack of sprinklers in older homes, but there’s a fierce debate in that province over retrofitting. In Victoria three of 29 care facilities are not sprinklered but they are fairly small and residents have to be mobile. In Surrey, Fire Chief Len Garis has said he doesn’t want to boost costs for owners and residents by forcing retrofitting, but just one of 36 homes in that city lacks sprinklers and it has just nine suites and upgraded alarm system.

Still, as Esquimalt councilor and former British Columbia fire commissioner Dave Hodgins told the Victoria Times Colonist on the weekend, “A hundred years of experience with sprinklers. We know they work. We know they’re relatively inexpensive to install today – whether it’s new or retrofit. Why can’t we get there?”

Good question from a politician who knows the answer.


Print this page

Related



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*