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April 16, 2012 – You can’t put a price on human life, unless you are the government of Ontario. I encourage you to read the excellent story in the April 12 Toronto Star by staff reporter Moira Welsh, on the state of fire safety in Ontario seniors homes. At present, approximately 4,000 care facilities built prior to 1998 are not required to be sprinklered.

April 16, 2012
By Peter Sells

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April 16, 2012 – You can’t put a price on human life, unless you are the government of Ontario. I encourage you to read the excellent story in the April 12 Toronto Star by staff reporter Moira Welsh, on the state of fire safety in Ontario seniors homes. At present, approximately 4,000 care facilities built prior to 1998 are not required to be sprinklered. As a result, more than 200,000 seniors and other vulnerable residents are inadequately protected. Welsh’s article goes into detail regarding the efforts of Ontario fire chiefs, individually and collectively, to remedy this indefensible shortcoming.

In Ontario, the oversight of fire protection by the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) falls under the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Welsh quotes the minister, Madeleine Meilleur, stating that it is fire prevention and properly trained employees — not sprinklers — that are the most effective safeguards. “Sprinklers are not the only answer,” the minister says. “They are important, but nothing will replace the staffing levels and how they are trained in case of fire.”

I have to hold Meilleur’s statements up to the light, and examine them from several angles. First, no fire chief or fire industry expert would ever advocate a one-strategy solution. Nobody in uniform is lobbying for sprinklers as a fire-protection panacea; clearly the need for all appropriate active and passive fire-prevention measures is not reduced or eliminated by the installation of sprinklers. This is especially true of adequate staffing by properly trained employees, and rapid response by properly trained and equipped firefighters. Second, the minister clearly does not realize or does not publicly acknowledge that sprinklers are the single-most effective fire-protection measure available, and the single-most statistically significant factor in survivability of a fire in such facilities. Sprinklers work – there can be no argument on that point.

Several hours after the Star article hit the streets, the announcement came that “Ontario's Fire Marshal will conduct a technical consultation to identify fire safety improvements in residences for seniors, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable Ontarians.” The 12-month technical consultation follows an earlier public consultation, during which fire services, municipalities, owners and operators of residences for vulnerable occupants, and advocacy groups, were asked to comment on what steps could be taken to improve fire safety in these facilities. The recommendations from that public consultation form the basis of Meilleur’s comments to Welsh. The key areas for improvement that were identified include enhanced inspections, training for owners/operators and staff, and installation of automatic sprinklers and other fire-safety retrofits.

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With this newly announced next step, the OFM will invite “key stakeholders to participate in an advisory group to examine long-term fire safety provisions for residences housing vulnerable Ontarians, including additional retrofits such as sprinklers, timing and implementation considerations, inspections, cost impacts and related amendments to the Ontario Fire Code.” So it appears that the message is starting to get through. The minister said, "Our government has taken strong action to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable citizens. We listened closely to experts and the public, and are looking forward to receiving additional technical advice. We will continue to work closely with our partners to improve fire safety in every home and residence across the province and appreciate the input that we have received to date."

All of this gov-speak, however forced and late off the mark, must be taken as a positive development. Still, there is no mention that the technical consultation will take firefighter response capacity into account. Ontario’s “comprehensive fire-safety effectiveness model” includes seven factors – fire risk, fire prevention program effectiveness, public attitude, detection capabilities, built-in suppression capabilities, intervention time, and fire ground effectiveness. Those last two factors must be part of any technical consultation that is intended to be “comprehensive”.

Unstated in all of this is the fact that the Ontario government is a major landlord in the care-occupancy market, and that to mandate sprinkler retrofits in its own buildings would result in a significant cost to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Welsh had quoted estimates, which I have no reason to question, of $40,000 to install sprinklers in a 30-person facility or $110,000 in a 155-person facility, based on a rough cost of $3 per square foot. That crunches out to between $710 and $1,333 per resident. If that seems like a lot, think again; that would largely be a one-time cost. Sprinklers are a tried-and-true, relatively low-tech and low-maintenance fire-protection solution from the late 19th century. Amortized over 10 years, we're talking about between $6 and $11 a month per resident.

Can you put a price on the life of your mom, your grandfather or your mentally challenged brother? You don't have to; the Ontario government has graciously done so on your behalf. Let's see if it is now ready to pony up.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com.


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