TORONTO – Its the modern-day equivalent of Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned.
Governments fiddle while helpless pensioners die in their beds.
Canadians watched in horror as at least 27 seniors died in a horrific inferno in Isle-Verte, Que., on Jan. 23. Five are still unaccounted for.
Seared into our brains are graphic stories of elderly residents screaming for help, unable to escape the deadly blaze.
Sadly, its an all-too-familiar story.
This province has its own tragic history of not protecting the most vulnerable ; frail seniors with mobility issues who are unable to flee a burning home without assistance.
The tragic roll call of the dead speaks for itself:
1980, Extendicare, Mississauga ; 21 dead.
1995, Meadowcroft nursing home, Mississauga ; 8 dead.
2009, Muskoka Heights Retirement Home, Orillia ; 4 dead.
2011, Rainbow Suites Retirement Home, Timmins ; 1 dead
2012, Place Mont-Roc nursing home, Hawkesbury ; 2 dead.
Until the Isle-Verte tragedy, the Ontario government dragged its heels implementing mandatory retrofitting of sprinklers in nursing homes and retirement residences, NDP critic Paul Miller says.
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While Health Minister Deb Matthews recently announced the government would look at a speedier implementation of retrofits, Miller said they stonewalled legislation he introduced that would make sprinklers mandatory in all homes, not just in new ones.
He first introduced a bill in 2012, but it died on the order paper when former premier Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature.
We have the worst record in North America for fatalities in long-term care facilities and old folks homes. Its terrible and nothing to be proud of, Miller said.
Licensed retirement homes have five years to make the changes. Publicly operated facilities have until 2025.
Miller questions why that implementation is so far out and how many seniors will die before the sprinklers are installed.
This is outrageous, he said. Why do people have to die to get a knee-jerk reaction from the Liberal government?
Matthews said her ministry, which oversees long-term care homes, is looking at what lessons can be learned in the aftermath of Isle-Verte.
Any time a tragedy like this occurs, its important that we look to see if there are lessons that can be learned, she said via e-mail. Its important that we take the time necessary to get it right.
Close to 70% of long-term care homes have sprinklers in them, she said. The remaining 30% are slated for major renovation or complete rebuilding to bring them up to current standards.
The phase-in period for sprinkler installation in our long-term care homes was developed after extensive consultations, and with that redevelopment schedule in mind. All of our long-term care homes are required to have a comprehensive emergency plan in place that includes meeting fire codes and planning for fire safety and evacuations.
These plans must be updated and evaluated annually, she said.
Susan Eng, vice-president of CARP, a group that advocates on behalf of seniors, said one loophole is in retirement homes. In contrast to nursing homes, retirement homes serve seniors who are relatively independent and don’t need nursing care, but who still may have difficulty getting out of the place quickly if fire breaks out.
Those homes fall under the ministry of public safety and were given 10 years to instal sprinklers, which Eng says is too long to wait. She hopes the government will address that gap when they fast-track changes.
When the government announced changes to the regulations last May, it also said it had earmarked $20 million for the project. I asked a ministry spokesman how that money has been spent and whether it includes retrofitting of both public and private homes. He was unable to tell me.
Eng said when the government announced the retrofitting requirement, several thousand homes and some 200,000 residents were in homes that didn’t have state-of-the-art fire safety upgrading.
She estimated the cost to retrofit a home the size of the one that went up in flames in Quebec is about $100,000.
But, the price of doing nothing is so much higher.
There, there are 32 people dead or missing. If you had asked each of those families to put in $3,000 to renovate the home so it was safe in the event of a fire, I bet they would pay that, Eng said.