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NFPA Impact: November 2009

We need to address the fire-safety conditions in facilities that care for the aged. We have, in these types of residences, a fire-loss rate that should not be considered acceptable and that proposed changes to the 2010 National Building Code won’t rectify.

November 6, 2009 
By Sean Tracey

We need to address the fire-safety conditions in facilities that care for the aged. We have, in these types of residences, a fire-loss rate that should not be considered acceptable and that proposed changes to the 2010 National Building Code won’t rectify.

Canada has experienced some tragic losses in facilities accommodating the aged. These include four fatalities in a nursing home in Orillia, Ont., in January. A comparison of Canadian fire losses in these facilities with U.S. seniors’ residences shows that Canadian losses on a per-fire basis are significantly higher. Canadian facilities have 10 times the damage per fire and are 7.7 times more fatal than those in U.S. facilities. Canadian facilities caring for the aged have fire fatality rates 5.4 times higher than that of the Canadian general loss rate. This should be inexcusable in any developed nation.

In my opinion, one of the reasons for this is that U.S. facilities mostly fall under NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, which has provisions for existing buildings. Additionally, the Life Safety Code requires facilities to measure evacuation capabilities of residents, not just to provide training for supervisory staff. In 2006, NFPA 101 went even further by requiring all nursing homes to be retroactively sprinklered. This also applies to any assisted living centre that has proven to have impractical evacuation times based on actual timed evacuations. Our seniors should be so lucky.

Proposed changes to the National Building Code for 2010 will introduce Ontario’s B3 occupancies to the rest of Canada. This is in an effort to reflect how seniors are accommodated, and the level of care provided to them. In the simplest terms, B2 are nursing homes, B3 are assisted living centres and C, are senior apartments where no services are provided. The problem is that categorizing according to the building code is based on the level of services that are provided, not on the capabilities of the residents for self-evacuation – a fact that is not going to be addressed by adding another occupancy category in the National Building Code. Changes need to be made in the National Fire Code such that firm criteria for evacuation are established and facilities that fail can be required to be upgraded. Additionally, these classes of properties are desperately in need of existing building standards.


In Canada, local fire services need tools to measure the evacuation capabilities of residents. If residents are unable to evacuate in a given time, then either the property needs to be retroactively sprinklered and/or more staff added. The Niagara Falls Fire Department recently did just that following a close call that required all of the community’s resources. Officials were able to issue an order under the Ontario Fire Code to require a mandatory retrofit. A subsequent evaluation of other facilities in the community revealed that those structures would fare no better.

It is too late for the 2010 codes, but I propose a solution that every community could use now and it should fit with the fire prevention acts adopted in each jurisdiction. It will raise the ire of your respective fire marshals’ offices but what the heck – it may force the issue to be addressed. I suggest that fire departments go out and warn facilities that are not sprinklered that they will be evaluated in one week on their fire safety plans. Do not announce the specific date and time. Then, have the facilities run an evacuation drill of one fire zone during the evening hours, after residents have been put into their beds and when staffing is at its lowest. The time limit is 13 minutes. This is the benchmark used in NFPA 101 for impractical evacuation criteria and the trigger when assisted living facilities must be considered nursing homes and thus retroactively sprinklered. The facilities can include use of all staff, movement to a horizontal exit into another fire zone or to the exterior. If they are unable to evacuate in the given time, or refuse, then issue an order to amend their plans to either require additional staff, retroactively sprinkler or use any equivalent method such as those found in NFPA 101A. Require them to advise you of their selected path, then rerun the test in six months. If they fail again, issue an order to require retroactive fire sprinklers.

The ideal solution would be for our political leaders to follow the lead of provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, which requires all of its facilities to be sprinklered . This, however, is a policy decision in each province. Having as many municipal fire departments doing timed evacuation drills in homes for the aged in their areas and publishing the failures may be a motivator for the provinces to act. It is within the responsibilities of the various Fire Code Acts for the fire departments to review and accept these plans. What better way than to run timed evacuation drills?

Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at

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