Canadian Consulting Engineer

Calls rise for sprinklers in seniors’ homes

The fatal fire on January 23 at the Résidence du Havre in l'Isle Verte, north of Rivière-du-Loup in Quebec, is prompting calls for all provinces to raise fire protection requirements in seniors' residences and long-term care homes.

January 28, 2014   Canadian Consulting Engineer

The fatal fire on January 23 at the Résidence du Havre in l’Isle Verte, north of Rivière-du-Loup in Quebec, is prompting calls for all provinces to raise fire protection requirements in seniors’ residences and long-term care homes.

Susan Eng, vice president of CARP, an advocacy group for seniors, has been outspoken in her criticism of the status quo. She says that sprinklers and other measures such as fire doors need to be installed in nursing homes and seniors residences across Canada.

In a Reuter’s interview, Eng said: “We’ve had these kinds of fires over the last three decades, inquest after inquest making these recommendations. Here we are today and we still don’t have … a national standard that’s enforced and fully funded.”

An editorial in the Globe and Mail on January 27 also pointed out that there has been a long history of fires in seniors’ homes, including 54 people dying in a fire in Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec in 1969, 21 people killed in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland in 1976, and 25 dead after a fire in Mississauga, Ontario in 1980. The number of dead in the fire in L’Isle Verte is still not possible to know because of the difficulty of investigating the burned and ice-covered building, but 32 people are either dead or missing. Most of the seniors had limited mobility, but at least one survived by jumping from an upper floor.

The National Building Code already requires sprinklers in new nursing homes, but it says nothing about requiring them to be retrofitted into existing care facilities. Most provinces follow the national code requirements, and some like Ontario have taken further steps to begin requiring sprinklers to be retrofitted into existing facilities. However, Quebec does not have this requirement.

Following the latest fire, Ontario Health Minister Deb Mathews was reported to be considering moving up the deadline for requiring all seniors’ residences to have sprinklers. Under the current rules existing homes have a window until 2025 to install them.

A new edition of the Ontario Fire Code became effective on January 1, 2014. There are mandatory upgrading requirements for Care Occupancies ( Section 9.7). One of the requirements, subject to size, is that all Care Occupancies in Ontario are required to be retrofitted with sprinklers by January 1, 2019. 

In Quebec, a working group was already studying raising the fire protection standards for residences, and after visiting the site of the fire, Premier Pauline Marois has indicated she will follow the group’s recommendations.

A report in La Presse newspaper published January 24, said that currently 1,052 of 1,953 private seniors’ residences in Quebec have no sprinklers at all, and 204 of them, including the L’Isle-Verte home, had only partial sprinkler systems.

One section of the seniors’ home at L’Isle Verte that remains standing was built in 2002 and it was outfitted with sprinklers. The older section that was destroyed was a wood structure of three storeys without sprinklers.

Eng has suggested that the private nursing home industry has resisted installing sprinklers because of the cost. In an article in The Globe and Mail, “Stop the Nonsense: require sprinklers in all nursing homes,” she doesn’t mince her words: “The saturation media attention is forcing all of us to consider the calculus here: cost of retrofitting [probability 100 per cent and immediate expense] versus loss of life [probability? value?]. This calculation underlies the resistance from care home operators to mandatory retrofitting. They might argue that it was unnecessary or a fire unlikely but mostly they argued that the cost was prohibitive.”

Eng continues: “So let’s make the calculation easier for them,” and suggests to the home owners; “if a person dies in a fire under your watch, you pay. You pay for the funeral and into a fund to retrofit all such other care facilities. Families grieving the preventable death of their grandmother rarely have the wherewithal to sue and to delve into the deep weeds of the fire codes. So, let’s reverse the onus. Forget about the excuses and especially the expressions of remorse. They’re not worthy of such tragedies.”

To read the full article in The Globe and Mail, click here.

This article was amended on January 31, 2014 at 12.55 p.m.


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