Progress on CARP’s call to end patchwork of fire safety measures

CARP has been a vocal advocate on the issue of fire safety in care homes and in particular on fire sprinkler retrofitting, urging governments to end the patchwork of fire safety measures in nursing homes across Canada and to make sprinkler systems mandatory in all care facilities including those built before 1997. Although most provinces require sprinklers for new buildings, many provinces have been slow to retrofit facilities built before 1997, which were not required to have sprinkler systems by the national building codes. To date, 38% of care facilities across Canada remain without sprinklers, leaving many seniors exposed to fire related dangers.

In the weeks prior to the release of Quebec Corner’s report that investigated the causes of the L’Isle-Verte nursing home fire that claimed 32 lives and injured 15 others over a year ago, CARP sent out an open letter to all ministers responsible for fire safety in nursing homes across Canada. Although fire sprinklers are important, CARP’s letter pointed that other safety measures need to be enforced such as evacuation plans and staff training, followed by enforced compliance.

In response to ongoing media coverage of L’Isle Verte tragedy, provinces that have been inactive on this issue began to respond to the concerns of many Canadians with promises of action. Once Quebec joined the ranks of Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, all of which have mandatory sprinkler system legislation in place, shortly after Alberta and Manitoba followed suit by making funding announcements and promises to ensure that in a prescribed amount of time, all of their care facilities will be retrofitted with sprinkler systems.

Alberta’s promise to retrofit all care facilities with sprinkler systems

Alberta’s Premier, Jim Prentice announced that the province will remain committed to protecting seniors and will proceed with the promise to install fire suppression sprinklers in seniors’ residences, despite the fiscal crisis in the province. Currently, Alberta has 70% of its seniors’ homes without sprinklers and set aside $ 70 million for upgrades last year, and announced in November that it will be committing $ 160 million of provincial and federal funding over four years to tackle the issue.

Earlier this month, Seniors Minister Jeff Johnson announced that all seniors’ lodges and long-term care facilities will be upgraded with fire suppression sprinklers, by investing $ 80 million over the next three years. The money allocated from the province’s social housing fund will pay for upgrades in 6,500 units in 105 facilities around the province. The first priority will be given to facilities housing seniors with mobility issues and those served by volunteer fire departments in rural areas. To proceed, the Minister said that it was important to survey the facility operators to determine their needs in order to plan for the upgrades. Important to note, that the minister rejected making the sprinkler systems mandatory, saying most of the buildings constructed before 1990 are owned or operated by the province anyway and its government’s responsibility to upgrade the fire suppression systems.

Manitoba announcement to install sprinklers in all hospitals, personal care and group homes by 2025

The Manitoba government issued a public promise to install fire sprinklers in all of its hospitals, personal care homes and group homes by 2025, with some work expected to start this year. Manitoba indicated in their response to CARP that the province has established a fire taskforce last year to review fire and life safety in care facilities, and to explore fire prevention and emergency planning solutions. The task force’s report made six recommendations requiring sprinklers to be made mandatory in all existing care and treatment facilities, to make additional training available to local authorities, ensure that local fire inspectors adopt a consistent approach to fire safety inspections and raise public awareness about the importance of fire safety, followed by providing additional resources to the Office of the Fire Commissioner and local fire authorities to support fire protection planning, inspection and reporting.

Currently, 50% of Manitoba’s care facilities are either without or with partial sprinklers systems. But the province says that a $ 7 million project is already underway to install sprinklers in five personal care homes and one hospital this year. Another 18 facilities will get ‘other fire and life safety improvements’ this year. The province says it will spend another $2 million to have fire safety experts assess all of Manitoba’s 125 personal care homes and 62 hospitals to develop a comprehensive inventory of fire and life safety systems and a 10 year plan for prioritizing facility upgrades.

Provinces Continue to Respond to CARP’s Open Letter on Fire Safety

Nova Scotia responded to CARP’s Open Letter by indicating that since 1976 provincial nursing homes have been required to have an automatic sprinkler system and that the province has taken steps to ensure that facilities constructed prior to 1976 have been retrofit with sprinklers.

British Columbia has not officially legislated mandatory retrofit, but over time tackled the problem and has 8 facilities remaining that are not retrofit with sprinkler systems, and is discussing how to proceed to close the gap. In Saskatchewan out of 156 special care homes, there are 7 homes that are currently without sprinklers, and 4 of which are currently undergoing upgrades and installations.

The common recommendation in the Coroner’s inquests that followed many such tragedies has been to ensure that sprinkler retrofitting is at the center of a fire safety plan. The L’Isle Verte fire showed that sprinklers are crucial, even if they are not the only solution, and that other building code requirements and safety measures for existing care homes are also needed. CARP will continue to monitor progress of all provinces and territories in their adoption of fire safety measures, urging them to make sprinkler systems mandatory in all care facilities.