Have fire safety measures improved in Ontario in the decade since a deadly blaze erupted at an Orillia retirement home?
The arrival on Jan. 1, 2019 of a regulation mandating sprinklers in care facilities suggests the province is moving in the right direction, said veteran fire chief Ralph Dominelli.
There are loopholes that need to be closed,” Dominelli told Simcoe.com.
As he approached his April 30 retirement, Dominelli recalled vividly the January 2009 fire that killed four people and left several others critically injured.
“It has affected many members of the department and it is still in the back of their heads,” he told Simcoe.com.
The retirement home did not have automatic sprinklers, which were not required at the time despite the effectiveness of such devices in reducing damage and loss of life.
“We know it probably would have saved lives if this regulation would have came into effect earlier,” Dominelli said.
Automatic sprinklers were among 39 recommendations made by a coroner’s jury following the Muskoka Heights inquest.
It was the fourth coroner’s jury since 1980 to call for sprinklers in nursing and retirement homes.
Only now are they mandated, the province having allowed facilities time to retrofit after regulations changed to reflect the recommendations of the inquest.
(Sprinklers aren’t required in a building of three stories or less and with sleeping accommodations for no more than four people, so long as there are interconnected smoke alarms.)
Orillia care facilities were ahead of the curve in adapting prior to the change coming into effect, with one alone investing more than $100,000 in its system.
“A lot of the homes, they are old and to retrofit them, it’s not just installing the sprinklers,” Dominelli said, adding the upgrade may require a larger connection to the municipal water main.
In addition to sprinklers, a dozen other recommended measures have since been adopted, while several others have been partially implemented.
Homes must now have sufficient supervisory staff at night and conduct annual evacuation drills under the watch of their local fire department, along with monthly fire drills.
“Muskoka Heights, the night of that fire, there was only one person on for 21 residents,” said Dominelli, adding the staff member “did the best she could with the situation she was faced with.”
The sprinkler regulation applies to ‘vulnerable occupancies’, including long-term care facilities and retirement homes.
While these changes are needed and welcome, Dominelli and others are urging the province to look beyond care facilities to keep Ontarians safe.
All new residential homes should be equipped with sprinklers, they argue.
“Most of our fatalities in the province right now are in residential homes, with approximately 35 per cent with no smoke alarms or non-working (alarms),” Dominelli added.
The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs continues to advocate for mandatory sprinklers in new home construction, said president Cynthia Ross Tustin.
Until then, prospective buyers should consider asking builders to equip their homes, she argues.
“Quite frankly, the average person would rather think about having a nice bathroom or granite counter tops than the chance that they could not escape a horrendous fire,” Ross Tustin added.
Modern building materials, while more economical, burn faster than materials in older homes, she added.
“In new-construction homes, you’ve got between three and four minutes to get out of them,” Ross Tustin said.
Dominelli acknowledges that incorporating sprinklers into a new build comes at a financial cost ¬— estimated at between $1 and $2 per square foot.
Yet he views it as a relatively small expense given the life-saving potential.
“You could get your sprinklers done for less than upgrading to hardwood,” he said.
Joe Vaccaro, chief executive officer for the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, said cost isn’t the only factor.
“Conceptually, everyone jumps at it,” Vaccaro said. “But when you do the technical work around it there are questions that have to be answered, which (are): What’s the right design? What are we trying to achieve with the implementation?
“Are we talking about a sprinkler system that knocks down a fire, or are we talking about a sprinkler system that simply provides a pathway to exit the building?” he added.
Whenever the issue is examined within the industry, “generally, the decision is not to bring them forward, because there is lots of other fire safety improvements that we have made in the last 10 years,” he added.
The requirement for hard-wired smoke detectors is one such advancement, he said.
Vaccaro suspects the debate around mandatory sprinklers will become a national discussion as Ottawa moves to harmonize building code regulations across Canada.
“It’s a technical discussion around that table to say, what is going to give us the best benefit on the issue of fire safety?” he added.