Christie Blatchford
Published on Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

Ontario’s fire chiefs are waiting – braced is maybe a better word – for the next fatal nursing home fire.

They know it will happen. There are, as the office of the Ontario Fire Marshal yesterday told The Globe and Mail, an estimated 4,300 “care and treatment” facilities in the province that don’t have automatic sprinklers.

These facilities run the gamut from retirement home to assisted-living home to nursing home. They house people of what the poet Lord Byron famously called “a certain age, which means certainly aged,” from the relatively fit to the senior who needs just a little help getting dressed to those suffering severe physical or mental limits, such as dementia.

They are our mothers and fathers and, for those of my generation, they are or all too soon will be us.

Generally speaking, automatic sprinklers put out fires, suppress the increasingly toxic smoke produced when modern materials burn and just plain save lives. For all those reasons, sprinklers are especially useful for frail or disabled populations, who as Sean Tracey, a professional engineer and Canadian regional manager for the National Fire Protection Association recently testified at an Ontario Fire Safety Commission hearing, have difficulty self-evacuating.

Studies confirm what common sense dictates, seniors are slower to react to the sound of an alarm, slower to get moving, to get out of the chair or the bed, slower to escape.

That’s why so many jurisdictions across North America have made sprinklers mandatory in what are called in the trade “care occupancies.”

After eight residents died following a fire at the 1995 Meadowcroft Retirement Home in Mississauga, Ontario made sprinklers mandatory in new retirement homes. More recently, the province made them mandatory in all new residential buildings taller than three storeys.

But the province hasn’t budged on making it law that older buildings – the estimated 4,300 of them where some of the most vulnerable people live – retroactively install sprinklers.

Forty-four deaths and three coroner’s inquests later, as Niagara Falls Deputy Chief Jim Jessop furiously puts it, nothing has changed since 1980 and the terrible Extendicare Nursing Home fire in Mississauga, where 25 seniors were killed.

Chief Jessop has led a rear-guard action to get around the provincial government’s intransigence.

After a May 2008 fire at a Niagara Falls home – no one was killed but 11 seniors had to be carried out of the building by his firefighters and sent to hospital – he decided if his department didn’t act, it would be a breach of its duty of care.

In short order, Niagara Falls conducted surprise nighttime inspections of four other local homes and, when they failed to quickly get their residents out in a drill, ordered them either to install sprinklers or significantly boost overnight staffing levels

The first such order, against the home which had the fire, was upheld by the fire marshal. But the next three were rescinded, apparently because Chief Jessop had used a four-minute limit for what’s called a fire-zone evacuation – meaning residents from the area of a fire had to be moved to a safe zone within four minutes.

This is faster than old guidelines – which don’t recognize how much more lethal is the smoke produced by modern materials – but well within NFPA standards.

Chief Jessop and the City of Niagara Falls appealed the three rescinded orders to the Ontario Fire Commission, an arm of the community safety ministry whose members are appointed by the province.

In the first appeal, despite presenting mounds of evidence about the efficacy of sprinklers, the commission upheld the OFM’s decision. Then the commission suggested that perhaps at the second hearing, Chief Jessop wouldn’t be allowed to testify as an expert witness because, unbelievably, he was an advocate.

In the event, last week Chief Jessop did get to testify, as did Huntsville Fire Chief Stephen Hernen (a seniors’ home burned to the ground there in April of 2008) and Orillia Fire Chief Ralph Dominelli (last January, a fire at the Muskoka Heights Retirement Home there killed four people and badly affected the remaining quality of life for some survivors).

Chief Hernen testified that were it not for two off-duty police officers, who were the first to spot smoke and sound the alarm and then went room-to-room with the staff, getting residents out, people may have died.

As it was, he said, some firefighters had to round up residents “who had wandered off,” close to a busy highway. “I believe it was largely a matter of luck that there was no loss of life,” Chief Hernen said.

After the terrible fire last year in Orillia, Chief Dominelli adopted Chief Jessop’s pro-active approach, and conducted mock evacuations of local homes. They began with a 72-bed, non-sprinklered building.

Staff “were allowed to proceed as if every contingency worked in their favour,” Chief Dominelli said, but “failed to carry out their duties” – and even forgot to evacuate one resident, found afterward.

In addition to the two chiefs who testified, 17 other Ontario fire chiefs or senior fire prevention officers showed up and sat in the room in support of Chief Jessop.

At second reading last month of Liberal MPP Mario Sergio’s private member’s bill – which would amend the Fire Protection and Prevention Act – about 70 chiefs from across the province were in the gallery.

“We’re very proud of what Jim is doing,” says Richard Boyes, Oakville chief and president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. But Chief Boyes and Chief Jessop are also bewildered by the government’s lack of action.

Chief Jessop rattled off examples of where the same government has moved swiftly to rewrite legislation – the propane explosion that killed two, one a firefighter, and saw the law changed within a year, the controversial street-racing law, etc., etc.

“My only conclusion is that the government has made a conscious choice not to address this issue,” he said yesterday. “There is no other explanation. We know there are going to be more deaths.”

Fire Marshal Pat Burke told The Globe last summer that Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci had asked him for a report on “the number of care occupancies” that didn’t have sprinklers and what it would cost to retrofit them.

Yesterday, Chief Burke said his office had met its deadline, reported to the minister (that’s where the estimated 4,300 number comes from) and had been asked for more information.

Laura Blondeau, Mr. Bartolucci’s spokesperson, however, denied there ever was a request for a report. Mr. Bartolucci, she said, merely “asked for advice on options to improve fire safety in Ontario.”

The stall is on at Queen’s Park – until the fire all those chiefs are dreading happens.

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