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Muskoka Heights owner unfamiliar with fire code

April 26, 2012, Midhurst, Ont. - The owner of the Muskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia, and two other seniors homes, says he has never read or seen the Ontario Fire Code other than to scan one section online – even after losing four occupants in a fire in 2009.

April 26, 2012
By Laura King

April 26, 2012, Midhurst, Ont. – The owner of the Muskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia, and two other seniors homes, says he has never read or seen the Ontario Fire Code – other than to scan one section online – even after losing four occupants in a fire in 2009.

Dean Rushlow operates two retirement homes in Cornwall, Ont., both larger than Muskoka Heights, which housed 21 residents before the fatal fire.

Rushlow said Thursday morning at the inquest into the four deaths that he wished there were a simpler document that outlined an owner’s responsibilities, because the fire code is unwieldy and intimidating. He proposed a Coles Notes-type summary of the code that owners could quickly and easily access, and suggested that a retirement home owners’ responsibilities be outlined on page one of such a document.

Later Thursday, John Saunders, lawyer for the Orillia Fire Department, produced copies of the Ontario Fire Code for the six-person coroner’s jury, and pointed to section 1.2.1.1 at the front of the document, which succinctly explains that unless otherwise specified, the owner is responsible for carrying out the provisions of the code.

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“So, you’re aware that you have to comply with the Ontario Fire Code? Correct?” Saunders asked. “And you’re aware that the fire code has very specific things that owners have to do?”

“Yes,” said Rushlow.

“And yet you’ve never gone on to familiarize yourself with those very specific things in the code?” Saunders asked.

“Correct.”

“And after all we’ve been through,” Saunders said, “why today would you not have done that?"

“I have no answer for that,” Rushlow replied.

“I put it to you, sir: Do you care?”

Rushlow paused, before asking Saunders to clarify the question.

“Do I care about what?”

“Do you care about the 46 people in Cornwall and the other people in the other home. Do you care about them?”

Rushlow asked coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer if he had to answer, and was told he did.

“Yes,” Rushlow said. “I do.”

“And so,” said Saunders, “you’ve decided you’re not going to get a copy of the fire code and read what you’re legal obligations are?”

“I’ve chosen not to.”

Rushlow agreed with Saunders’ suggestion that it would be wise to send retirement home staff members to the Ontario Fire College for a train-the-trainer course so they could educate other workers about fire safety.

“If you were to train all those staff at the fire college, they would then come back and train all of your employees,” Saunders said. “Then you have an in-house expert who is on your staff with regard to this issue.”

Rushlow said earlier Thursday afternoon that automatic sprinklers would have given residents more time to get out during a 2009 fire, and would have made rescue efforts easier for firefighters.

Rushlow said during questioning by Graham Webb, lawyer for the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, that he employs just one night-shift worker at each of the two retirement homes in Cornwall.

Personal care worker Denise Collins was the lone staffer working on the morning of Jan. 19, 2009, at Muskoka Heights. Collins testified earlier in the week that she shepherded several seniors out of the burning, three-storey building before firefighters arrived.

Rushlow said he plans to install sprinklers during renovations to one of the Cornwall retirement homes and although architectural drawings have been completed, there is no timeline for construction.