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Fully Engaged: July 2012

I’ve been intrigued by the story of Hélène Campbell, a double-lung transplant recipient. Campbell, suffering idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, made headlines after appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres show a few months ago.

July 6, 2012
By Ken Sheridan

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I’ve been intrigued by the story of Hélène Campbell, a double-lung transplant recipient. Campbell, suffering idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, made headlines after appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres show a few months ago.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is scarring or thickening of the lungs without a known cause. The lungs become stiff, making breathing and air exchange difficult. Idiopathic means no cause can be found (at this time). Mostly found in people over 50, this young woman, in her early 20s, is stricken with the disease.

Some patients may improve when they are treated with drugs, but in most people the disease can get worse even with treatment. This worsening can happen quickly, or very slowly; each individual is unique. For Hélène, death was imminent. Without a double-lung transplant doctors were not optimistic of her long-term survival; she was dying.

I sometimes wonder about the prognosis for the fire service and our ability to broadcast our messages and ensure that lawmakers are listening and reacting.

The findings in an Ontario coroner’s inquest, released in May, once again focused on sprinklers in long-term care and retirement homes. The inquest was called after the 2009 fire that claimed four lives and critically injured six other seniors in a retirement home fire in Orillia, Ont.

This is the fourth inquest in 25 years regarding deaths in homes for seniors in Ontario. All of the inquest juries have stated that automatic sprinklers should be mandatory for these types of buildings. Thus far, these recommendations have been ignored and not made law.

Less than 24 hours after this inquest ended, two more seniors died in a non-sprinklered retirement-home fire that also injured two firefighters in eastern Ontario.

Sean Tracey, a professional engineer and Canadian regional manager for the National Fire Protection Association (and contributor to Fire Fighting in Canada) recently testified at an Ontario Fire Safety Commission hearing. Tracey explained that sprinklers are especially useful for frail or disabled populations.

As a fire service, we must voice our convictions that enough is enough. The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) is leading the province to get sprinklers in vulnerable care occupancies.

As I’ve written in the past, any cause needs a champion. A champion is simply, among other things, an ardent defender or supporter of a cause or another person.

In Ontario, Deputy Chief Jim Jessop of the Niagara Falls Fire Department, former OAFC president Tim Beckett (fire chief in Kitchener, Ont.) and Frank Lamie, a deputy fire chief with Toronto Fire Services, are campaigning to see that the province’s 4,300 retirement homes and long-term care facilities are retrofitted with sprinklers. (Read Chief Beckett’s August 2010 Straight Talk column.)

According to Statistics Canada, there are almost five million seniors (65-plus) in Canada; that’s more than 14  per cent of the entire population and is up 0.3 per cent from just one year ago. For the first time, Quebec now has more people aged 65 and older than youth under the age of 15. Nova Scotia (16.5 per cent) and New Brunswick (16.2 per cent) also have high proportion of seniors. In British Columbia the proportion of seniors is 15.3 per cent, the highest for the western provinces. British Columbia is also the only province in the west in which there are fewer children under the age of 15 than people 65 years or older.

Our population is getting older, therefore the issues surrounding seniors will become more visible. I still laugh at a bumper sticker I once read that said, Be Nice To Your Kids . . . They Choose Your Nursing Home. Funny but true. And on that note, would you choose a nursing home or retirement home for your parent(s) that is not protected with automatic sprinklers?

Are we (as a society) ignoring our aged and leaving them to the chances of fire in facilities that are created to care for them?

Even the most trained and experienced firefighters cannot save everyone every time there is a fire; often it’s too late when the alarm is struck.

I encourage every one of you to write to your members of provincial parliament and encourage them to support a bill to have existing vulnerable care occupancies retrofitted with sprinklers. Rally your provincial associations and raise your voices to be heard in your provincial legislatures. This is not just an Ontario problem. The National Building Code did not require sprinklers in these occupancies prior to 1995.

Also, beg your fire-prevention staff to inspect the seniors’ facilities in your municipality if they are not already doing so, and have suppression staff pre-plan for these buildings.

Take time to work with the staff and owners of these occupancies and help them execute their fire safety plans. Observe an evacuation and offer advice to positively reinforce that properly trained staff will save lives. Education will prove extraordinary in a fire situation regardless of building type or size.

It is somehow ironic that a whole country has supported young Hélène in her fight for survival through encouragement, prayer or financially. Canadians are some of the most sympathetic people in the world and that’s something to be proud of. Hélène got her lung transplant and is walking and talking today.

Unlike an unknown disease or cancer, we already have the cure for death by fire; it’s time we did more about it.


Ken Sheridan is deputy chief in Norfolk County, Ont. He is a certified fire-prevention officer and a certified fire and life safety educator. Contact him at ken.sheridan@norfolkcounty.ca


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