The catastrophic fire that killed 33 residents of a seniors’ home in L’Isle Verte, Que., calls attention to the importance of effective fire safety planning, and the potential vulnerabilities within a much broader range of multi-residential buildings. It should also remind owners and managers that they are legally and practicably the frontline defence.
“About 50 per cent of the Fire Code relates to required safety measures and systems, and the testing and maintenance of those systems. The other 50 per cent deals with the responsibility of staff and management for making sure the building is safe and carrying out the fire safety plan,” explains Michele Farley, president of FCS Fire Consulting Services Ltd., and a frequent task group member in the development of standards and building and fire codes.
Those fire safety plans — secured in the prominently marked lockboxes seen at the entrance of many commercial and multi-residential buildings — are a legal requirement of most provincial Fire Codes. They set out emergency procedures, assign responsibilities and ensure that firefighters can easily find drawings and other key information about building systems. All staff who could conceivably be on-site and pressed into duty during a fire must be familiar with the plan and trained to respond. Residents must also be informed and, ideally, encouraged to participate in fire drills.
“The main things are really reviewing the plan, practicing it and communication to the occupants,” Farley advises. “Practice is mandatory for supervisory staff. It’s optional for residents.”
Typically, Farley’s experience in organizing and overseeing numerous practice exercises for clients in the condominium and rental housing sectors is that few residents opt to participate. Thus, it’s likely that many of them will not be prepared for an actual event.
“When I teach evacuation and fire safety planning, I always teach that the first thing people are going to think is: ‘This is probably not a real fire.’ Reaction time is slow because the first instinct is to wait and see, not to leave the building,” she says. “It is always better for staff and residents to assume the emergency is real and act accordingly. If the alarm has been going off for two or three minutes, if the fire is significant and nobody had done anything yet, that could be a huge amount of lost time. ”
Staff who are confident in their knowledge of the fire safety plan can provide critical, life-saving assistance to arriving firefighters. Perhaps most importantly, they must quickly identify the location of disabled occupants who may need assistance to leave the building. Valuable time is also saved if firefighters can be efficiently briefed on the building’s layout and the location of power sources, valves and fire hose cabinets.
The definition of building owner applies to a range of responsible parties beyond the holder of the property’s title.
“The owner can be anyone who has care and control of the building. That could be the property manager or building security or the superintendent,” says Kevin Boudewyn, principal of the fire safety consultancy Boudewyn Training and Consulting, and a former firefighter. “Whoever is holding the keys at the moment, that’s the owner.”
The L’Isle Verte tragedy highlights the extra challenges confronting an aging population, and provides bleak confirmation of sprinklers’ effectiveness in suppressing the spread of fire and providing more time to evacuate. The newer section of the seniors’ complex, built to comply with more stringent codes, clearly outperformed the older wing.
“As evidenced by half of the structure remaining standing, sprinklers work. This fire needs to be the catalyst for the remaining provinces that have not yet mandated the retrofitting of their care occupancies to do so,” says Sean Tracey, an assistant deputy chief with Ottawa Fire Services and a member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. “As this fire has proven, these most vulnerable citizens are at greatest risk.”
While Ontario’s Fire Code has mandated that sprinklers be installed in existing buildings accommodating specifically designated vulnerable occupancies, Farley foresees that market demand will push more landlords and condominium boards to make the investment voluntarily. She also urges prospective renters, homebuyers or children taking on the care of their aging parents to prioritize fire safety.
“There is a change within buildings, in general. We have many more seniors living in multi-residential occupancies and more older residents are aging in place than ever before,” she observes. “I don’t know if something like the fire in L’Isle Verte raises consumer awareness, but it should. You should be looking at how old the building is, is it sprinklered and what it’s constructed of. Safety features should always be a consideration, particularly where seniors are concerned.”
“The bottom line is sprinklers save lives,” she adds. “I think we are going to see owners and developers start advertising even row-housing as being sprinklered.”
Ontario’s move to require sprinklers in vulnerable occupancies is in step with the recommendations of a coroner’s inquest into a 2009 fire that killed four residents of a seniors’ home in Orillia, Ont. Looking further back, Farley traces measures introduced into the building and fire codes over the past three decades to other deadly outcomes, beginning with a 1980 fire in a Mississauga nursing home that took the lives of 21 residents.
“The industry is already looking at the lessons to be learned from the L’Isle Verte fire. Where did it start? How did it start? Why couldn’t people get out? How long was the fire burning before staff was aware of it?” she says. “The codes and standards developers are going to look at the coroner’s report and ask: how are we going to do better?”
Barbara Carss is the editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management magazine.