By Laura King
April 13, 2012, Toronto – The Ontario government announced a technical review of fire safety in seniors homes on Thursday, the same day the country’s largest newspapers ran a scathing, front-page expose lambasting the province for inadequate staffing in those care facilities and lax sprinkler-system laws.
By Laura King
The announcement by Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek came a month ahead of schedule and coincided with the unexpected but highly anticipated release of a report into a nine-month public consultation process into fire safety in so-called vulnerable occupancies, or homes for people who require care, such as seniors.
Fire-service leaders welcomed the technical review as a step forward in the lengthy push to get the Ontario government to recognize the need for sprinklers in these types of homes.
The Toronto Star story, with the headline Seniors housed in fire traps (the online version was titled Fire chiefs want sprinkler systems for seniors’ homes, not body bags) was published just days before the start of a coroner’s inquest into four fire deaths at theMuskoka Heights retirement home in Orillia, Ont., in 2009. The home was not sprinklered. The inquest begins Monday in Midhurst, Ont., and is expected to last six weeks. Three previous inquests into fire deaths in seniors homes have recommended sprinklers. Fire chiefs have had the support of various political parties and MPPs over the years, but three private-members bills calling for sprinklers in seniors homes have floundered.
Ontario’s record on seniors homes is grim. There have been 45 fire fatalities in seniors home in the province since 1980, the highest number in North America. About 200,000 seniors and other vulnerable Ontarians live in residences that are exempt from sprinkler laws.
Jim Jessop, the deputy fire chief in Niagara Falls and the province’s most vocal advocate for sprinklers, said Thursday night that the technical review is a positive move that pushes the issue into new territory. The review will consider issues such as the need for sprinklers, how to best address fire-safety measures in care facilities that are not on municipal water systems, and the best way to manage fire-safety in smaller homes with few residents.
Tim Beckett, president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, said the OAFC worked with provincial officials over the last week to launch the technical consultation and is “looking forward to working with them in the future to improve fire safety for the residents in all care occupancies across the province."
The review is scheduled to take up to 12 months, after which it’s not clear how or when any sprinkler measures or other fire-safety enhancements would be enacted, but Jessop said he’s confident that the government will push ahead with any recommendations that come out of the consultation process.
Fire Marshal Wieclawek said the technical consultation will “build on the information we have already gathered and help the government to finalize these improvements."
The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) said in the press release Thursday announcing the technical review that it will invite stakeholders to participate in an advisory group to examine long-term fire safety provisions for these vulnerable occupancies, “including additional retrofits such as sprinklers, timing and implementation considerations, inspections, cost impacts and related amendments to the Ontario Fire Code.”
The report on the nine months of public consultations into fire safety for vulnerable residents in Ontario was posted on the OFM’s website Thursday afternoon. It said there were 238 completed responses to the online review from the fire community, retirement homes, other occupancies, municipalities, and advocacy groups/agencies/associations.
Key recommendations include improvements to the inspection process, better training for owners/operators and staff, consistency in enforcement and application of fines/penalties, the need for comprehensive fire-safety plans, better public awareness, increased staffing and municipal resources and the installation of automatic sprinklers and other fire-safety retrofits.
Thursday’s Toronto Star story said fire chiefs across Ontario are frustrated with the province’s lack of response to the sprinkler issue and many have taken matters into their own hands by doing fire drills in seniors homes, or homes for other vulnerable occupants, and working with homeowners and municipal officials to improve safety for residents, including the installation of sprinklers.
Jessop said about 24 retirement and nursing homes in 10 Ontario cities — including London, Kitchener, Niagara Falls and Huntsville — have been tested in mock evacuations and most failed
Yesterday afternoon’s announcement was a surprise to many fire chiefs after reading in the morning paper that Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, had said that sprinklers weren’t the answer to the fire-safety issue.
Meilleur told the Star that fire prevention and properly trained employees — not sprinklers — are the most effective safeguards.
“Sprinklers are not the only answer. They are important, but nothing will replace the staffing levels and how they are trained in case of fire,”Meilleur said.
Versions of the Star story were posted on the websites of dozens of Ontario media outlets before the province made the announcement yesterday afternoon.
“I don’t know why it has taken all three governments so long to act,” Jessop told the Star.
"If 45 children had died in fires would we still be waiting for the government to take action?”