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An investigator walks with an evidence number on the scene of senior's residence home where a fire left 5 confirmed dead and 30 missing in L'Isle Verte, Quebec January 24, 2014. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)
An investigator walks with an evidence number on the scene of senior's residence home where a fire left 5 confirmed dead and 30 missing in L'Isle Verte, Quebec January 24, 2014. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)

Sprinkler systems are suddenly top of mind Add to ...

While Ontario is thinking of speeding up its plans to equip all seniors’ homes with sprinkler systems after the L’Isle-Verte tragedy, Quebec is still tiptoeing around the question.

A day after eight people were confirmed dead in a horrific fire, rescuers were scrambling to find 30 missing residents in the icy ruins of a Lower St. Lawrence retirement home.

“Everyone is saying: Is there something more we should be doing?” Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said. “We have brought in regulations that will require sprinklers in all retirement homes and long-term-care homes. There is a phase-in period, and so I think we do have to take a look, another look, to see if there is anything we can do to accelerate that.”

Introduced last year, the new rules require facilities built before 1998 – when sprinklers became mandatory – to be equipped with such systems. Private residences have five years to comply, while publicly owned ones have until 2025. Ms. Matthews defended that time frame, but said she wants to move it up.

“I cannot imagine having to deal with that situation here in Ontario, and it is, I think, an opportunity to take another look.”

In Quebec, politicians of all stripes are responding with caution to calls for mandatory sprinkler systems.

The provincial Liberal government proposed a new law in 2011 to tighten regulations on elder-care homes to make them safer. But while requirements for fire-detection systems were made more stringent, sprinkler systems were not mentioned. In Quebec, only facilities in which residents have no mobility are required to have sprinklers.

When the Parti Québécois came to power, it essentially enacted the law as it was. Minister of Health and Social Services Réjean Hébert, who is also responsible for seniors, made a plea for safer care homes after learning that a private residence in his riding had no sprinklers and did not meet basic safety standards.

“Do we need to wait for a tragedy ... before we set up stricter rules for residences that house people who are losing their autonomy,” Mr. Hébert said in the Quebec National Assembly last February. He is out of Quebec this week, and calls to his office were directed to his colleague, Agnès Maltais.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault alluded to sprinkler systems when he met reporters in L’Isle-Verte on Friday, but he was careful not to criticize his political opponents in a time of collective grief. “For now, our concern is to get those bodies out,” he said. “But at some point down the road, we will need to address the question [of sprinklers]. We will need, eventually, to move quickly on this.”

Quebec coroner Cyrille Delâge has raised the issue of mandatory sprinklers several times. In 1997, he concluded that a single sprinkler would have saved seven residents of a Montreal retirement home who died in a fire in the summer of 1996. He came to a similar finding in a 1992 investigation of a deadly fire in a Montreal seniors’ centre. In his report, he even referred to French philosopher Voltaire. “To someone who remarked that he kept on saying the same things, Voltaire retorted: Yes, I have already said it, and I will repeat it until you will have understood.” Reached by phone in Quebec City, Mr. Delâge refused to comment on the L’Isle-Verte tragedy.

The Quebec association for elder care facilities has been asking the Quebec government to make sprinkler systems mandatory in all seniors’ homes since 2012. But it also wants financing for residences to retrofit. A spokeswoman indicated the association has never estimated the costs of the required renovations.

Half (53 per cent) of the 1,953 licensed retirement homes in Quebec have no sprinkler system, according to a La Presse compilation made using the province’s public registry.

When asked about the costs of making the homes safer, Mr. Legault noted that “we will also have to take that into account.”

In a September, 2013, report prepared by Newport Partners for the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the cost of installing a sprinkler system in a single U.S. residential home was found to be $1.35 per square foot on average, or about $6,026 per house, although many factors can affect the bill. Moreover, sprinkler systems need to be inspected regularly, at the cost of the owner.

“It is not like buying new ceramic tiles: It doesn’t show,” points out Karl Nadeau, owner of Protection Incendie Aquatek, a sprinkler installer and fire protection inspector in Longueuil, Que.

“Most owners will wait until they are pressured by their insurance companies to act. Only when insurers threaten not to renew their insurance policy, because they don’t have a sprinkler system or because it hasn’t been inspected recently enough, will they act.”

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