Private seniors’ homes in Quebec must have sprinklers under new regulations

Below is an article published by the Globe and Mail on February 17th 2015. Click here to read the article.

Just more than a year after 32 seniors died in a Quebec fire, only four provinces have moved to require life-saving sprinklers in older retirement and nursing homes.

Quebec became the fourth province Tuesday as it announced new regulations that will force most older seniors’ residences to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems, falling in line with recommendations from Quebec coroner Cyrille Delâge who examined the L’Isle-Verte blaze last January and issued a scathing report last week.

Quebec joins Ontario in allowing a multiyear transition for the necessary work, and will also set aside an unspecified amount of money to help pay for retrofitting. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island also require sprinklers for most residences.

In Quebec, Labour Minister Sam Hamad said the new rules will cover existing licensed homes with more than nine residents and will be phased in over five years. Smaller homes will have to meet requirements for exits and building material to avoid installing sprinklers, he said.

“After what happened in L’Isle-Verte, we have a duty to do everything possible to avoid a similar tragedy,” Mr. Hamad said. “It is imperative the government act to improve the security of our seniors in these residences.”

Most Canadian jurisdictions started requiring sprinklers for new construction in the 1990s, but retrofitting has come much more slowly. British Columbia has only a handful of homes without sprinklers and is considering the next step. Alberta has hundreds of homes without sprinklers and set aside $70-million for retrofitting subsidies last fall, using a carrot-instead-of-stick approach. (The total bill to bring Alberta up to date is estimated to be $250-million, similar to the anticipated total cost in Quebec.)

Manitoba and Saskatchewan have set aside small amounts of money, but have not introduced retrofit regulations.

The inaction angers the leaders of a seniors’ group that has tallied at least 140 deaths since 1969 – when 54 Quebeckers died in a fire not far from L’Isle-Verte. An inquest into that fire, also led by Mr. Delâge, recommended sprinklers as well.

“If you set the bar really low, this is a good-news story,” said Susan Eng, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. “But 32 people gave their lives so the future would be better for others. It’s the only way you can feel good about this and you can hardly congratulate them for it.”

Late last year, the association sent a letter to all provinces asking what action they’ve taken to improve fire prevention in seniors’ homes. Only PEI responded, Ms. Eng said.

“Change only seems to happen when people get killed first,” she said.

The consensus among fire-prevention officials is that almost no other tool could do more to save lives in seniors’ homes, where residents often have mobility issues. Mr. Delâge reached a similar conclusion in the L’Isle-Verte case, where almost all of the deaths were in a wing of the residence with no sprinklers.

“If the system is installed and working properly, the chances of having a fire like L’Isle-Verte is reduced to almost zero,” said Sylvain Dufresne of the Quebec fire chiefs’ association.

The association of Quebec private seniors’ residents also welcomed the new rules, saying it will create an even regulatory regime and level the competitive playing field. “They should have done this years ago,” said president Yves Desjardins, adding he hopes provincial aid will be sufficient to avoid home closures.

Last week, Mr. Delâge issued a scathing report saying multiple failures led to the L’Isle-Verte deaths, including the lack of mandatory sprinklers and poorly trained staff and volunteer firefighters.

Mr. Delâge recommended Quebec consolidate dozens of small-town fire halls in favour of more centralized fire services so training, recruitment and equipment could be improved. The fire chiefs welcomed the idea.