Fatal Quebec fire renews call for sprinklers in old age homes

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Friday, February 14, 2014

MARKHAM, Ontario—A fire at a retirement home in Quebec on Jan. 23 that killed an estimated 32 residents has spurred renewed calls for the government to mandate the retrofit of sprinklers into existing old age homes.

 “It was tragic,” Matthew Osburn, communications manager for the Canadian Automatic Sprinkler Association (CASA), based here, told Security Systems News. “Being in the industry, it’s beyond frustrating, because we know we have a solution to the problem and it’s just a matter of trying to convince politicians and governments to make the right decision.”

He said that since 1995, Canada’s national building code “essentially has required that all types of care facilities that are newly constructed have to be protected with sprinklers.” All provinces have gradually adopted the code as law since that time, Osburn said.

However, Osburn said, the code “doesn’t address the existing stockpile of buildings that were built before that time.” There are thousands of buildings in that category, he said. One was the Residence du Havre in L’Isle-Verte, Quebec.

According to news reports as of early February, 27 bodies had been recovered from that 52-occupant home and five more people remained missing and were presumed dead. The exact cause of the fire had yet to be determined at that time but some reports suggested the early morning blaze was due to cigarette smoking by a resident. Most of the home’s residents were 85 or older, some had Alzheimer’s, and many used walkers or wheelchairs, news reports said.

Calls to add sprinklers to such old-age homes have been voiced for years, according to Osburn and others. But the proposals haven’t gone anywhere because of concerns about costs, news reports say.

“This isn’t a new problem; this has been going on for decades and it’s about time our government addresses the issue,” Osburn said, noting that other tragic fires have preceded this one.

Since the January fire, CASA has been spearheading the renewed call for sprinklers, with President John Galt giving numerous nationwide television interviews and working with supporters such as the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.

Other calls have included an editorial in the Montreal Gazette titled “Politicians fiddle with laws as buildings burn.” The editorial notes that as of August 2013, all nursing homes in the United States that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement had to have automatic sprinklers.

And in Canada, Ontario in 2013 also became the first province to mandate fire sprinklers in homes that care for seniors and people with disabilities.

But given that previous attempts to get sprinkler requirements passed have not been successful, what are the chances this time?

“I’m always hopeful and optimistic,” Osburn said. “As tragic as the fire was, it garnered a lot of media attention, and we’ve spoken to a lot of key people across Canada, especially the fire chiefs, and they’ve made it a priority item to push and lobby for. So I’m hopeful that the other provinces that have not [mandated sprinklers in all care facilities] will take a look at the issue and put in place retrofit provisions to make it happen. But there’s no guarantee; that’s the unfortunate thing with politics.”