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Fatal apartment fire sparks debate over inspection laws, automatic sprinklers

A low-income seniors apartment building in Scarborough, Ont., after a fire claimed the lives of three people, on Feb. 5.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

A fatal fire at a Toronto apartment building for low-income seniors has provoked renewed scrutiny of provincial laws regarding inspections and automatic sprinklers – the latter a safety measure that the city's deputy fire chief says "certainly would have made a difference" in last week's blaze.

The Toronto Community Housing Corporation building, which is advertised as a "senior's lifestyle suite" and is restricted to those aged 59 and over, is not a licensed seniors' home. That, coupled with the fact that it was built before the Ontario Fire Code was changed in 2007, means certain standards related to sprinklers and fire department inspections do not apply.

Of the 2,100 buildings in the housing corporation's portfolio, 69 are for seniors. A TCHC spokeswoman said the units are intended for those who can live independently, but the corporation does not screen applicants to ensure that is the case.

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"Toronto Community Housing is a landlord," Lisa Murray said in an interview Sunday. "We are not set up to, we are not mandated to, and we are not funded to provide all the social supports that we find people need once they move into our housing."

The Ontario Fire Marshal is investigating the cause and origin of the blaze that broke out on Friday at about 3 p.m. at the five-storey, 126-unit Neilson Road building, portions of which have sprinklers. The two-alarm fire in the city's east end killed three people and injured at least a dozen others.

At a news conference Saturday, a spokesman for the fire marshal said there was no immediate indication age was a factor in getting the residents out of harm's way. And while the building met fire code requirements for sprinklers, Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop said additional sprinklers "certainly would have made a difference."

"There's no doubt in our mind that had sprinklers been installed to today's standard, the outcome would have been different," he told reporters.

In early 2014, the Ministry of Community Safety announced a requirement that all "vulnerable occupancies," such as licensed retirement homes and "homes for the aged," be retrofitted with automatic sprinklers. Most of these facilities were given five years to meet the new standard. The announcement came just days after 32 seniors died in a fire at a Quebec nursing home – a death toll the coroner blamed, in part, on the lack of a sprinkler system in the building's older wing.

Because the Neilson Road building is not a licensed retirement home or home for the aged, and because it was built about 20 years ago, sprinklers are not required in every unit and hallway. And while the TCHC conducted its latest monthly inspection on Jan. 22 and found no issues or fire code violations, the last fire department inspection was in 2013.

"It may not be a nursing home, it might not be an assisted-living facility, it might not be a care facility where there have been imposed additional obligations," said Susan Eng, a seniors' advocate and the former vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

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"Therefore, in this current case, everybody is ducking for cover saying, 'Not my fault,' because all of the 'rules' were followed. So my question is, 'I guess it's all right, then, that those three people died and [others] got injured?'"

Asked about potential sprinkler-related revisions to the fire code, a spokesman for the Ministry of Community Safety noted the fire marshal's investigation is ongoing and said it would be "inappropriate to comment this early in the investigation."

"As the investigation proceeds, we will look to see what, if any, lessons can be learned from this incident and how best to implement them in consultation with our fire safety partners," spokesman Greg Flood said. Ms. Murray said the housing corporation, which is facing a $2.6-billion repair backlog, would be "absolutely 100-per-cent compliant" with any future regulations.

Fire officials said Saturday the blaze was fuelled by furniture in the fifth-floor foyer where two hallways intersect. Deputy Chief Jessop said "that type of furniture, with the polyurethanes, absolutely produces toxic and black smoke." The hallways became so full of smoke that some seniors were evacuated on ladders.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Sunday, Deputy Chief Jessop said the Toronto Fire Service has completed its post-fire inspection. The evidence has yet to be reviewed, he said, but if the fire code was violated, charges could be laid under the provincial Fire Protection and Prevention Act.

With a report from The Canadian Press.

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