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Quebec fire raising calls for stricter rules

MONTREAL - A fire that swept through a seniors' residence in Quebec is raising questions about whether more stringent regulations are needed right across the country.

Residence du Havre, which was mostly gutted in a fierce fire in L'Iles-Verte on Thursday, was only partially fitted with a sprinkler system.

The tragedy could serve as a catalyst for change, with one advocacy group representing seniors urging provincial authorities Canada-wide to take note.

"The specifics — building codes, fire codes, nursing-home regulations, retirement-home regulations — are all provincial responsibilities," said Susan Eng, a Toronto lawyer and vice-president advocacy for CARP, a group that defends seniors' interests.

"Therefore, you're going to have to look to provincial authorities to make the rules and enforce them but there's nothing stopping them from adopting a common set of standards."

There are no uniform rules when it comes to safety. Last year, Ontario became the first province to have mandatory sprinklers in all retirement homes and long-term care facilities.

It's part of a series of new rules that came into effect on Jan. 1. Retrofitting old buildings, however, is still several years away.

"We don't have to have a patchwork, there's no good reason the standards shouldn't be identical across the country," Eng said.

In Quebec City, Social Solidarity Minister Agnes Maltais said the tragedy could prompt the government to review the regulations pertaining to seniors' residences.

Currently, sprinklers are mandatory only in Quebec seniors' homes where the occupants are not mobile.

Maltais said that if the absence of sprinklers in parts of the Residence du Havre is raised as a contentious issue in any coroner's inquest, Quebec could make them compulsory in all private residences, regardless of who lives there.

A Health Department document indicates the residence, which has operated since 1997, had only a partial sprinkler system.

The facility expanded around 2002 and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm. Fire chief Yvan Charron said his colleagues were able to get to the third of the building that remained standing. The rest was inaccessible.

Etienne Desjardins, who works for the company that installed the sprinklers, told Radio-Canada the older part of the building didn't have sprinklers.

The same Health Department document, updated last July, says the units and the building had smoke detectors and a fire alarm.

Eng said sprinklers are only part of the equation and that staffing levels are just as important.

The majority of the people at Residence du Havre were not mobile. Two people were on staff overnight, even though only one is required by law.

"It was three floors, one elevator, two staff, do the math," Eng said. It's not going to work.

"Even the fire marshals don't say sprinklers are everything — you need the fire alarms to go off and you need the staff to get them out."

The National Building Code of Canada, a model that provinces use as a sort of blueprint, was updated in 2010 to reflect the need to change rules governing care facilities.

"Every care facility has to be sprinklered, there are no exceptions," said Philip Rizcallah, who has worked on the code in his role at the National Research Council. "And that's on a going-forward basis, so it wouldn't apply retroactively."

It's up to the provinces to decide individually how they proceed.

"Not every province applies it the same way," Rizcallah said. "Some jurisdictions go above what our requirements are, some may define care occupancy differently and others may have already had sprinkler requirements in those facilities for some time."

Changes were also introduced in Quebec last year after recommendations from coroners over previous residence fires.

They include introducing carbon monoxide detectors, smoke alarms, fire alarms, firewalls, and doors in the basements of establishments. The measures are to be introduced over several years, with some involving detectors and alarms coming into effect later this year.

Quebec has 2,038 privately owned seniors' facilities. Of that number, 93 per cent have received certification, including Residence du Havre. Quebec strengthened safety standards at these homes, but obliging them to have sprinklers was not part of the criteria.

Louis Plamondon, president of the Quebec association for the rights of retired persons, believes serious questions must be asked about safety in homes for the elderly.

Plamondon said an investigation needs to look at whether there is enough staff on hand in Quebec to respond to such an event. He says members in homes across the province are probably feeling a bit worried right now.

"According to our information, there were people living there with extremely limited mobility, people who might have been better served in a long-term care facility," Plamondon said.

"But in L'Isle-Verte, as elsewhere, those nursing home spots are hard to come by."

The Regie du batiment, the agency that enforces the Quebec building code, says home operators must "establish clear and well-known instructions and an evacuation plan."

"Your fire safety planning must take into account regulatory requirements, users' needs, building equipment and features, on-site personnel, firefighting resources, and the feasibility of different options," the agency said.

Yves Desjardins, president of an association that represents residences for Quebec seniors, said his group has actually been advocating for sprinklers in all its facilities.

He sits on a committee that has been studying how to bring it about while dealing with the heavy cost that comes with retrofitting older buildings.

Desjardins said Thursday's tragedy may well bring about changes, depending on what the investigation says. He called on his members to remain vigilant.

"The message we give our owners is to be constantly on alert, to not think it'll never happen, to train staff and make sure that equipment is ready to go," Desjardins said.

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