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Fire safety fundamentals for seniors’ homes

Quebec mandates sprinklers following coroner's report on L'Isle-Verte tragedy
Monday, February 23, 2015
By Barbara Carss

While notably prompting the Quebec government to compel retrofits in seniors’ residences that lack sprinklers, the recently released report from Quebec Coroner Cyrille Delâge more generally underscores fire safety fundamentals for vulnerable occupancies. Key recommendations arising from a tragic nursing home fire in January 2014 stress the importance of vigilant oversight, rapid response and efficient evacuation.

If those themes seem familiar, it’s because earlier inquests have drawn much the same conclusions. The Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP) points to 140 fire-related deaths in seniors’ homes since 1969 as it calls on the federal and provincial governments to enact legislation aimed at older facilities that predate building code requirements for safety features such as sprinklers, fire separation components and self-closing doors.

“Let’s hope this time the public authorities in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada act to make all nursing homes safe,” Susan Eng, CARP’s vice president, advocacy, said following the Feb. 12 release of Delâge’s report on the inquest into the death of 32 seniors in a fire at Résidence du Havre in L’Isle-Verte, Quebec. “When their own fire safety codes require sprinklers, fire doors and evacuation plans for new (seniors’) homes, why is it so difficult to mandate retrofitting of homes built before they saw the wisdom of those rules?”

In fact, this time, fire safety experts are impressed with the speed of both the coroner’s work and the Quebec government’s response.

“Sometimes we have to wait a couple of years for the inquest to take place and the report to be issued. Then it takes a couple of more years for regulations to be drafted and there’s often a long phase-in period before they’re in force,” observes Michele Farley, president of FCS Fire Consulting Services Ltd. “This was a very fast turnaround. It was great to see how quickly the coroner reported, the speed with which the Minister announced the follow-up actions and the timelines set for those actions.”

Amendments to Quebec’s Safety Code, posted as a draft regulation, Feb. 17, will make it just the fourth Canadian province — along with Ontario, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island — to mandate the installation of sprinklers in older existing facilities. Designated seniors’ homes must comply by March 18, 2020. Two-storey buildings with fewer than 10 residents or single-storey buildings less than 6,500 square feet with a maximum of eight units and no more than 16 residents will be exempt provided other egress and/or fire separation requirements are met.

This follows Safety Code amendments approved earlier in the decade that are now in place for privately owned seniors’ residences or are scheduled to come into force over the next three years. Pending requirements include enhancements to fire separations, which will be necessary by March 18, 2018, and seven stipulations related to fire detection and alarm systems, which will be enforced beginning March 18, 2016. Of the latter, a directive for alarm systems to automatically connect to a fire department is aligned with Coroner Delâge’s recommendation that fire alarms be automatically transmitted to a central emergency response agency that can ensure firefighters are immediately notified and dispatched.

“It’s still fairly commonplace where we find an emergency alarm that is just attached to the building’s security system. What’s needed is a true ULC-listed alarm system,” reports Steve Clemens, executive director of the Canadian Fire Alarm Association. “It has to be properly installed, monitored and maintained to ensure it performs as it was designed to do.”

Operators of Ontario’s long-term care and retirement homes are now expected to comply with a similar requirement for fire alarm monitoring that came into effect Jan. 1, 2015. Meanwhile, there is a lengthier phase-in for sprinkler installations across the province with compliance deadlines of Jan. 1, 2019 for publicly owned homes and Jan. 1, 2025 for privately owned homes — a timetable that CARP scorns.

“Ten years is much too long to take action on a preventative measure that has proven to save lives,” the association’s Feb. 12 media release states. “The L’Isle-Verte fire showed that sprinklers are crucial even if they are not the only solution, which the coroner also said.”

The call for mandatory installation of sprinklers and alarm transmittal capability are the only two of Delâge’s eight recommendations that would necessitate physical alterations to buildings, with sprinklers representing the greater capital outlay. His other six points focus on improved planning, training and oversight.

“With any inquest, they are only looking at the actual situation of that event and the recommendations will pertain to that,” Farley notes. Nevertheless, inquests are typically called to investigate matters of broad public interest so recommendations pertaining to that one event almost always have potential for wider application.

Delâge called for a certification process, to be reviewed on a three-year cycle, to ensure that seniors’ homes conform to rules and regulations. This would have to include an analysis of residents’ mobility and cognitive capacity, and prove that no undue building modifications had occurred since the previous certification. Fire officials would have to confirm that seniors’ homes had emergency plans and conducted fire drills, while owners would be obliged to properly train staff on fire safety and evacuation procedures.

Fire safety plans, staff training and at least one annual fire drill are already regulatory requirements in Ontario, but, regardless, they are simply good management practices. Farley also insists that quality assurance measures must be part of any plan and training program.

“All of our codes, national and provincial, say the owner is responsible ‘for’, but they don’t say ‘how’,” she says. “Proper training requires qualified trainers, evaluation and performance testing of the training and regular retraining.”

Don MacAlister, chief operating officer with Paladin Security overseeing health care and educational facilities, advises that staff will likely have to rely on techniques such as the blanket cradle-drop to evacuate non-ambulatory residents, making it critical to practice these methods.

“Obviously, they are not going to lift an elderly frail person onto a blanket and drag them down the hall in a drill, but a facility practices with its own staff in the patients’ role. It’s important to get a feel for what to do,” he says. “If staff get comfortable with that, if they’re called on to respond in an emergency, they are more likely to have a successful outcome.”

Evacuations should generally be simpler in newer seniors’ facilities designed — as building codes now stipulate — as a series of horizontal sections separated with fire walls. In this scenario, more mobile residents are guided into the nearest safe zone so that staff can return to the area in alarm to help move those still remaining.

“It begins with the people who are most ambulatory. You move those who can at least partly evacuate themselves, or who can move quickly, to get as many people out as possible,” MacAlister explains. “In the older facilities without horizontal fire separations, each person would have to be taken outside, which is always a much more difficult evacuation.”

In contrast, sprinklers can effectively contain and suppress a fire at the point of outbreak so that few residents would have to be moved.

“Step one is: sprinklers save lives,” MacAlister says. “The worst situation is no sprinklers and a vulnerable population that isn’t ambulatory.”

Delâge’s recommendations may be a sadly redundant list of steps that are still far from universal, but they provide a primer for improving safety that’s not just for implementers of public policy. They should also inform consumers.

“Parents are becoming actively aware of fire safety issues when their children are going away to live in school dormitories, and I think we need to have the same kind of checklists and measures for our aging parents when we’re making decisions about their accommodations,” Clemens maintains. “It’s not just about fire alarms or sprinklers or evacuation plans. It’s about how they all act together in an emergency. We need to start looking holistically at all aspects of fire safety.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.

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