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Manoir Louisiane, a private seniors’ residence in Montreal, on Jan. 4.Evan Buhler/The Globe and Mail

More than a quarter of Montreal private seniors’ residences were not in compliance with fire safety requirements last year, such as up-to-date alarm systems and sprinklers, internal fire department documents show. But only a fraction were facing judicial proceedings.

The residences, commonly known in Quebec by the French acronym RPAs, are accommodations for independent or semi-independent elderly people that offer services such as meals and nursing care. These facilities are managed by private operators but certified by local health authorities.

Seniors aged 65 years and older have the highest rate of fire-related deaths, according to Statistics Canada. Mobility limitations impeding quick evacuation mean proper planning and safety standards are crucial to save lives, says a 2021 Quebec government fire safety guide for managers of seniors’ homes.

Yet, out of 187 Montreal RPAs, 49 had non-compliant means of evacuation. Only six of those residences were facing judicial proceedings. These figures are in a table included in an e-mail sent by Alain Laflamme, special risks section chief, to his boss, deputy chief for prevention and risk management Chantal Bibeau, on July 18, 2023. (The province’s Ministry of Health and Social Services says there are 182 RPAs in the city).

Fire safety infractions can result in fines and remedial orders such as the obligation for property owners to install additional equipment, conduct work, or evacuate the premises.

A similar pattern emerged in other fire prevention areas: 42 RPAs had non-compliant alarm systems, 26 had non-compliant sprinklers, and 24 had non-compliant fire safety plans.

But only three residences were facing judicial proceedings related to the sprinklers, and seven for non-compliant alarm systems. None were facing any consequences for having non-compliant fire safety plans.

The e-mail, obtained through an access to information request, does not say whether some residences accumulated non-conformities in more than one area nor does it say what the exact infractions were.

Fire safety plans – which are required in a variety of places including hospitals, schools, movie theatres, detention centres and some office and residential towers – detail evacuation procedures and other emergency measures.

The Globe and Mail previously reported that in 2009, the Montreal fire department stopped validating fire safety plans in locations where they are required. This was one of several suspensions of activities uncovered last year in the aftermath of a fatal blaze in the city’s historic district, where lax enforcement might have contributed to the deaths of seven people. The Globe reporting put the fire department under the spotlight and multiple lawsuits against the city followed.

City of Montreal spokesperson Audrey Gauthier told The Globe in June, 2023 that the fire department continued to check fire safety plans in seniors’ residences and buildings where high-risk industrial processes occur.

The July 18 e-mail from Mr. Laflamme to Ms. Bibeau suggests enforcement was nonetheless rare.

Ms. Bibeau responded to Mr. Laflamme, on July 28, by asking her secretary to plan a meeting between then and the fall with Mr. Laflamme and other officials to look into the “planning and prioritization of files” and the “treatment of non-conformities” in RPAs.

City of Montreal spokesperson Gonzalo Nunez said earlier this month that he was not able to provide an updated table of non-compliant RPAs, but that the fire department “follows up on each of the files submitted and takes appropriate measures to ensure a return to compliance.”

Before the compilation sent by Mr. Laflamme on July 18, the fire department did not know how many RPAs were non-compliant with fire safety rules, he told Ms. Bibeau a week earlier, explaining that his team had to sift manually through hundreds of files to find out.

Montreal fire officials concede some safety inspections paused years before fatal fire

Ms. Bibeau had asked for this data after discussing the case of one RPA, the Manoir Louisiane, with fire department technical agent Emanuelle Marinier in late June. This is the only case discussed in detail in the shared fire department correspondence.

Reports show 23 non-conformities were noted at the Manoir, a 120-unit RPA, during inspections in 2014 and 2019.

In September, 2014, a fire inspector reported 10 non-conformities related to evacuation routes and other issues such as missing or damaged door shutter devices and fire separators in stairways. In September and October, 2019, another inspector reported 13 deficiencies concerning shutter devices, the building’s fire safety plan and alarm system, along with missing sprinklers and smoke detectors.

In April, 2023, an official from the local health authority, the CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, sent an e-mail to the fire department inquiring about this residence.

“I am writing to you to follow up on the non-compliances noted during your visit on October 18, 2019 to the Manoir Louisiane RPA,” wrote CIUSSS staff member Yasmine Bejjaje almost four years after that visit. “I would like to know if there will be legal action against the operator and what will be the next steps in this matter?”

Fire prevention agent Maxime Payeur answered Ms. Bejjaje in May, saying: “When I show up” at an unspecified date, “I will certainly initiate legal proceedings,” if no changes have been made.

In a partly redacted e-mail sent in June, 2023, Ms. Marinier told Ms. Bibeau that the Manoir’s alarm system’s “enhancement is not done to our knowledge and therefore not compliant” despite follow-ups done by phone and e-mail in 2020, 2022 and 2023. Other deficiencies appeared to be resolved based on the fire department’s internal records, Ms. Marinier said. RPAs “are usually visited every four years,” she wrote.

As of January, 2024, there is no record of any proceedings against the numbered company that owns the Manoir Louisiane at the Montreal municipal court.

The sole shareholder of the company, Rosaria Renzo, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe earlier this month: “We are in compliance, but there is an update that we have not yet done” regarding the alarm system. Ms. Renzo said this update was delayed because of high costs and that all other non-conformities “were corrected as soon as they were noted.”

According to Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services’ website, the CIUSSS certified the Manoir in September, 2019, just before the last round of fire department inspections. A certified RPA means it “complies with rules to ensure the health and safety of its residents,” including fire safety plans, the Quebec government says on its website.

Ministry spokesperson Marie-Pierre Blier said fire departments are responsible for assessing RPAs’ compliance and share inspection reports with local health authorities. But Ms. Blier added that when work required to comply with fire safety rules is not carried out, local health authorities “must enforce the building regulations.”

CIUSSS spokesperson Luc Fortin said the local health authority “issues or renews the certification of an RPA if and only if it complies with the regulations in force regarding fire safety.” He said that during their latest meeting with the fire department in December, 2023, there was no mention of any fire safety issue at the Manoir Louisiane.

According to the health ministry website, Ms. Renzo owns two other RPAs, one in Montreal and one in Bois-des-Filion, north of the city.

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