Straight Talk: August 2010
By Tim Beckett
Sprinklers save lives. Why then, in Ontario, is there resistance to legislating sprinklers in certain buildings?
By Tim Beckett
Sprinklers save lives. Why then, in Ontario, is there resistance to legislating sprinklers in certain buildings? The facts are clear; people are dying in buildings that are not sprinklered. The public, the homebuilders and the government have been educated about the benefits of sprinklers but there is still resistance.
For decades, sprinklers have protected people in workplaces, in assembly occupancies and, in recent years, in highrises and hotels. But residential fire deaths occur above acceptable levels each year and recently, in Ontario, we have had several deaths and close calls in retirement homes. In Ontario, the fire service is advocating to have care facilities and retirement homes retrofitted with sprinklers.
Ontario witnessed two of the largest retirement home fires in the history of North America. In 1980, 25 seniors died at Extendicare in Mississauga and in 1995, eight died in the Meadowcroft Place, also in Mississauga. In a separate fire, three seniors died in the veterans’ wing of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. These three fires, which resulted in the deaths of 36 seniors, led to three separate, independent coroner’s inquests, all calling for the retroactive installation of sprinklers in retirement homes and long-term-care homes.
In 2008-2009, there were three catastrophic fires in Ontario retirement homes. A fire at Rowanwood Retirement Residence home in Huntsville caused more than $8 million in damage. Luckily, two off-duty police officers alerted the residents and all 56 seniors escaped. Just a month later in Niagara Falls, a fire at the Cavendish Manor Retirement Residence resulted in the transport to hospital of 11 seniors, including three in critical condition. Six months later in Orillia, a fire at the Muskoka Heights retirement home resulted in the deaths of four seniors; three others have permanent brain damage. If the recommendations from these inquests had been followed these tragic circumstances could have been prevented.
In Bill 21, The Retirement Homes Act, the Ontario Liberal government this spring introduced legislation designed to protect seniors in retirement homes. Although excellent in principle, the bill mentioned fire safety requirements but failed to identify the need to retrofit those seniors’ homes that were built pre-1997 without automatic sprinklers. The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs recently made a presentation to the Standing Committee of Social Justice advising that sprinklers needed to be considered. Amendments were made to the bill but the legislation was passed without sprinklers being included.
In June, a letter was sent by the OAFC to all MPPs urging them to reconsider and vote down the bill until sprinklers were included. The OAFC subsequently received a letter from the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services expressing disappointment over the OAFC’s campaign to have the bill voted down, given that it strives to protect seniors. The minister also said in the letter that he recognized that sprinklers are an important tool in combating fires. If this is the case, why is the government not legislating sprinklers?
Is it the money? A ministry official told the OAFC that the cost to retrofit retirement homes in Ontario would be $250 million. That is a lot of money but is that the price tag we put on public safety? We heard the cost (at the time I was writing this column) for the protection of the world leaders at the G8 and G20 summits was more than $1 billion, four times what it would cost to protect thousands of Ontario seniors. Ontarians have witnessed billions of dollars of G8 and G20 infrastructure money used to build new recreation facilities and build and repair new roads, but governments apparently can’t see fit to provide money to protect our seniors.
Fire sprinklers are good for public safety. It should, however, be noted that fire sprinklers will not replace firefighters in the community and nor should they. They will, however, save people’s lives, including those of firefighters. Sprinklers will protect the firefighters from exposures to toxins in fires. Sprinklers will protect the firefighters from having to enter structures that may be unstable due to fire damage. If the government is really serious about the safety and protection of the public and the firefighters, it needs to start listening to the people and sources that know – the provincial fire marshal , the fire chiefs, the fire prevention officers, the firefighters and, finally, the many inquests that have been held. They point to the need for sprinklers.
In the words of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty when addressing colleagues at a garden party on the unpopular Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), this may not be a popular decision, but it is the right decision.
Sprinklers are the right decision!
Tim Beckett is fire chief with City of Kitchener and is first
vice-president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. He has 24
years in the fire service and a degree in public administration from
Ryerson University in Toronto. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org