Fire and Ice

A year after a nurs­ing home fire dev­as­tated a small Que­bec town, Alex Roslin re­vis­its that fate­ful night asks whether con­tin­ued po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy on safety mea­sures might ex­pose how we value the vul­ner­a­ble

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A year after a fa­tal nurs­ing home fire, what safe­guards are in place to pro­tect the vul­ner­a­ble?

IT WAS ONE OF THE COLD­EST DAYS of an un­usu­ally nasty win­ter, even for L’Isle Verte. A brac­ing north­ern wind blew all day out of the snowy Charlevoix Moun­tains. It tore across the frozen mouth of the St. Lawrence River, 25 kilo­me­tres wide at this point, and blasted the vil­lage of 1,400 nes­tled on the river’s south shore, six hours north­east of Mon­treal.

Fifty-two el­derly denizens of L’Isle Verte hud­dled in warmth in the Rési­dence du Havre se­niors home, gaz­ing out at the colour­ful row of ice fish­ing shacks that stood on the frozen river. They were used to harsh weather. Most had farmed the land and fished for smelt and her­ring all their lives. But even for such sturdy folk, this day – Wed­nes­day, Jan. 22, 2014 – was a lit­tle much. Most hadn’t ven­tured into the bit­ter weather and deep snows for days.

Jac­que­line Du­mont, 85, spent a re­lax­ing day in the home with her hus­band, Louis-Cyrice Mar­tel, 89, chat­ting and watch­ing TV. Pretty much ev­ery­one here was a child­hood friend. They had gone to school to­gether, watched each other have fam­i­lies and grow old. They were the hu­man ar­chives of a vil­lage steeped in his­tory, go­ing back to when Jac­ques Cartier first passed through in 1535 and noted the small lush green is­land just off­shore that gave the vil­lage its name.

Like many of the res­i­dents, Jac­que­line and Louis-Cyrice had spent their lives tend­ing a dairy farm. Theirs had been on the banks of the St. Lawrence just across the street from where the Rési­dence du Havre now stood. The peo­ple here didn’t have much, but they had what they needed. The kids played base­ball with a ball made out of a potato wrapped in cowhide. Their Christ­mas present was or­anges. But the fish used to be so thick in the wa­ter it was said you could plunge in a pail to catch din­ner. And the cou­ple, along with their cows, had de­lighted in a gor­geous land­scape, with a sun­set that lo­cals say is one of the most beau­ti­ful in the world.

Jac­que­line and Louis-Cyrice had moved into the home 10 months be­fore when his health de­te­ri­o­rated and he needed more care. She moved in sim­ply to be by her hus­band’s side.

“I’m get­ting old,” he would some­times tell her. “I’m ready to go. It’ll be bet­ter on the other side.”

But Jac­que­line wasn’t ready to let her hus­band go. He gave her a kiss ev­ery morn­ing and ev­ery night. They had cel­e­brated their 65th wed­ding an­niver­sary just two weeks be­fore. That evening, after they kissed, Louis-Cyrice went to sleep in his room across the hall on the sec­ond floor. Sleep­ing apart was a down­side of life in the home. A dou­ble room wasn’t avail­able.

In her room, Jac­que­line got into bed sur­rounded by fam­ily watch­ing over her from the pho­tos on her walls. She was the old­est of six sis­ters and seven brothers. Her room was a fam­ily mu­seum of the clan’s pho­tos and keep­sakes, in­clud­ing those of her own eight chil­dren, 14 grand­kids and nine great-grand­chil­dren.

Just after mid­night, a smoke alarm went off down the hall and woke her up. She went to her door, but it was locked. It had never been locked be­fore. She wanted to get to her hus­band, but the door wouldn’t open. She put on a coat and slip­pers, opened the pa­tio door to the bal­cony and stepped into the bone-chill­ing cold and snow deep enough to cover her feet. That’s when she saw that the roof was on fire. Black smoke was bil­low­ing into the sky, and the air was full of red-hot em­bers.

Jac­que­line saw fire­fight­ers on the ground be­low. “Help!” she screamed to get their at­ten­tion. “Help!”

She wasn’t sure if they could hear her amid the chaos and strong wind. She saw another res­i­dent on a third­floor bal­cony above. It was Co­lette Lafrance, 80, whom she had known since they were girls. Co­lette had gone onto the bal­cony after see­ing thick smoke in the hall out­side her room. Jac­que­line saw her friend jump onto the roof of the sec­ond floor of the build­ing. The snow there broke her fall. The two women started yelling to­gether. “Help!” The smoke was get­ting thicker, and Jac­que­line could barely see the fire­fight­ers be­low. No one was com­ing. The cold was be­com­ing un­bear­able, and the em­bers were fall­ing on her hair, singe­ing it. She brushed them off but burned her hands and coat sleeves. She con­sid­ered jumping, but her bal­cony’s me­tre-high para­pet was too high to climb over. Amid her fear, she couldn’t stop think­ing about her hus­band.

She and Co­lette had screamed for at least five min­utes be­fore three fire­fight­ers came into view through the smoke just be­low.

“Jump!” they yelled to Co­lette. They had no lad­der and wanted to try to catch her in their arms. She jumped with­out hes­i­ta­tion. The fire­fight­ers caught her and rushed her to an am­bu­lance.

After that, a fire­fighter man­aged to find a lad­der and prop it up against Jac­que­line’s bal­cony. He scram­bled up, hopped over the para­pet and grabbed her in his arms, hoist­ing her over the bar­rier onto the lad­der. “Go down,” he said. She was fac­ing the wrong way, out­ward, but this was no time to quib­ble. She climbed down the lad­der a step at a time as cin­ders con­tin­ued land­ing in her hair. It took two min­utes be­fore she felt the ground un­der her feet. She couldn’t be­lieve she hadn’t fallen. A wait­ing am­bu­lance took her to the hos­pi­tal in nearby Rivière-du-Loup to treat burns on her hands and legs.

Her hus­band, Louis-Cyrice, wasn’t as lucky. His body was later found on the first floor where it lay after the build­ing col­lapsed in the fire. Co­lette Lafrance sur­vived, too, but she also lost a loved one: her sis­ter-in-law Madeleine Fraser, 86. They had been close friends since they were young women and were in­sep­a­ra­ble in the nurs­ing home.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BUILD­ING, a smoke alarm had also wo­ken up Ar­naud Côté, 84, another re­tired dairy farmer. He moved into the home seven years ago after his wife passed away and was liv­ing in a room on the sec­ond floor. He grabbed a small yel­low flash­light, stepped into the hall­way and smelled smoke. His neigh­bour came out at the same time. Côté rushed down the hall to alert another neigh­bour, but the room was locked. He banged on the wall with a fist.

“Wake up,” he shouted. “There’s a fire in the hall. We have to save our­selves.”

He then woke one more neigh­bour and ush­ered all three se­niors – two in their 90s, the third, 85, all us­ing walk­ers – down the emer­gency stair­well to the first floor and out­side into the bru­tal cold. Côté was later nom­i­nated for a Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award for Brav­ery.

THE NEXT MORN­ING AT 7 A.M., the phone rang at the home of Daniel Per­ron, the fire chief in the Mon­treal sub­urb of Sainte-Julie. Per­ron, a 34-year veteran fire­fighter, was sec­re­tary of the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the 1,000-mem­ber Que­bec As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Chiefs. On the phone was Daniel Brazeau, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s pres­i­dent. “Did you see the news?” Brazeau asked. “No.” “Turn on the TV,” Brazeau said. The fire in L’Isle Verte was on ev­ery chan­nel. “A lot of peo­ple will be dead,” Brazeau said. “It’s an ab­so­lute dis­as­ter.”

Brazeau asked if Per­ron was avail­able to go straight away to L’Isle Verte to help. Per­ron said yes, and the two men set off. It was the sec­ond ma­jor dis­as­ter they were deal­ing with in a small Que­bec town in six months. The pre­vi­ous July, the two men had helped co-or­di­nate emer­gency work­ers in Lac Mé­gan­tic in Que­bec’s East­ern Town­ships re­gion, where a 74-car freight train full of crude oil had de­railed. The ex­plo­sion and fires killed 47 and flat­tened half the down­town – Canada’s dead­li­est rail­way dis­as­ter in 149 years.

That had been a hor­ror show, but Per­ron was now headed to what he’d later say was the most ter­ri­ble fire call of his ca­reer. He had had a colour­ful pro­fes­sional life, serv­ing as a Coast Guard of­fi­cer and RCMP of­fi­cer, then be­com­ing a fire­fighter and earn­ing a Queen’s Di­a­mond Ju­bilee Medal. In all those years, Per­ron had never at­tended a ma­jor fire at a se­niors home.

When Per­ron and Brazeau ar­rived in mid-af­ter­noon, they came upon an as­ton­ish­ing scene. The Rési­dence du Havre, still smol­der­ing as fire­fight­ers con­tin­ued to fight the fire, had be­come a grotesque mau­soleum of the home’s twisted re­mains – a moun­tain of solid ice, in places half a me­tre thick, from the wa­ter that fire­fight­ers had pumped, which had frozen almost in­stantly in the ex­treme cold. En­tombed within the mas­sive ice block lay an un­told num­ber of bod­ies of an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of the vil­lage’s el­ders, peo­ple whom the lo­cal vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers had known since child­hood.

They were ex­hausted and haunted by the night. They and the first po­lice of­fi­cers on the scene had risked their lives to save as many of the se­niors as pos­si­ble. One of--

fi­cer had run into the home three times with­out a mask, hold­ing his breath and smash­ing down doors to drag peo­ple to safety. Another had some­how per­suaded an el­derly man to jump to safety from a third-floor bal­cony.

Dozens of fire­fight­ers and po­lice of­fi­cers had come from across Que­bec to help. Per­ron and Brazeau put their ex­pe­ri­ence to work help­ing to co-or­di­nate ev­ery­one. Per­ron, with the lo­cal and re­gional fire de­part­ments, would or­ga­nize moral and tech­ni­cal support, lo­gis­tics and hu­man re­sources. The scale of the com­mu­nity’s loss and the hor­ren­dous body-re­cov­ery work to come were hard to fathom, even after Lac Mé­gan­tic.

Ex­tri­cat­ing the bod­ies while tem­per­a­tures re­mained be­low -20 ended up re­quir­ing a spe­cial ma­chine used to de-ice ships, which could gen­er­ate 300 C steam to melt the ice. Work­ing 12-hour days for a month, dozens of po­lice tech­ni­cians, fire­fight­ers, coroners and pathol­o­gists crawled on their knees through the de­bris, pick­ing inch by inch to re­cover 28 bod­ies. Even then, the bod­ies of four miss­ing se­niors were never found. A MID THE BUSY WORK, Per­ron couldn’t help remark on a strik­ing fact. Only half of the Rési­dence du Havre was ac­tu­ally de­stroyed in the fire. The other half was vir­tu­ally un­touched, not even ap­pear­ing to need a paint job. The key dif­fer­ence be­tween the two sec­tions: the de­stroyed part didn’t have au­to­matic sprin­klers; the in­tact part did.

The ru­ined sec­tion, built in 1997, is where Jac­que­line Du­mont and her hus­band had lived and where the fire ap­pears to have started. Almost ev­ery­one in this sec­tion of the home seems to have been killed. The newer sec­tion was added in an ex­pan­sion in 2002. It in­cluded sprin­klers and a thick con­crete fire­wall to stop a fire from spread­ing. This is where Ar­naud Côté lived and was able to save his neigh­bours. Ev­ery­one in Côté’s part of the home ap­par­ently sur­vived, even some who used a wheel­chair.

It wasn’t clear which – sprin­klers or fire­wall – saved the newer sec­tion. But it was clear to Per­ron that sprin­klers in the older sec­tion could have saved lives. “Ob­vi­ously, ob­vi­ously. We would never have had the fire we saw. A sprin­kler is like hav­ing a fire­fighter in your build­ing. It’s the ul­ti­mate method of pro­tec­tion,” he said.

For years, Per­ron’s as­so­ci­a­tion, the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Chiefs, and se­niors groups have im­plored Que­bec and other prov­inces to re­quire sprin­klers in all se­niors homes. Canada has the worst record of any coun­try out­side the U.S. for deaths in se­niors homes, with four fires in the top 14 dead­li­est non-U.S. blazes recorded from 1950 to 2004. Ja­pan and France were next with two fires apiece, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion (NFPA), a U.S.-based non­profit that de­vel­ops fire safety codes used by gov­ern­ments world­wide, in­clud­ing in Canada, and has 70,000 mem­bers in 100 coun­tries.

“We have the right to be safe. It’s an is­sue of hu­man rights. If a nurs­ing home isn’t safe – the place se­niors go to be safe – there is a fa­tal flaw,” said Susan Eng, a lawyer and vice-pres­i­dent of ad­vo­cacy at CARP, Canada’s largest se­niors as­so­ci­a­tion with more than 300,000 mem­bers.

“Most of us never think it’s go­ing to be us. It’s go­ing to be some­one else’s grand­mother. But the fact is this will touch you and your fam­ily soon enough. No one wants to know their par­ents’ lives ended like that.”

It doesn’t help that the prov­inces and even some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have a mish­mash of rules for se­niors’ homes, which house 400,000 Cana­di­ans. In On­tario, 40 per cent of pri­vately run re­tire­ment homes have no sprin­klers. The rate is 54 per cent in Que­bec and 70 per cent in Al­berta. In Nova Sco­tia, fire mar­shal Harold Poth­ier didn’t even know how many se­niors homes had sprin­klers, the Hal­i­fax Chron­i­cle Her­ald re­ported in Jan­uary.

Only three prov­inces – New­found­land, P.E.I. and On­tario – plus Yukon re­quire sprin­klers in all se­niors homes, new and old. On­tario this year in­tro­duced a re­quire­ment for sprin­klers to be retro­fit­ted into ex­ist­ing se­niors homes, but own­ers got five to 11 years to com­ply, de­pend­ing on the fa­cil­ity. The de­lay is too long, Eng said, con­sid­er­ing the risk and the fact that the prov­ince is giv­ing sub­si­dies for the work.

There’s been more progress south of the bor­der. After fires in two se­niors homes killed 24 res­i­dents in 2003, the U.S. re­quired all ex­ist­ing nurs­ing homes that get Med­i­caid or Medi­care funds to in­stall sprin­klers by 2013.

“Since 1969, more than 140 cana­dian se­niors have been killed in fires in res­i­dences where they and their fam­i­lies feel they are the most se­cure. It’s ab­so­lutely just un­ac­cept­able,” said Shayne Mintz, a for­mer fire chief in Burling­ton, Ont., and now the NFPA’s Cana­dian re­gional di­rec­tor.

It’s not to say that other fire safety mea­sures aren’t im­por­tant, too – ap­proved fire safety plans, fire drills, self­clos­ing doors and fire­walls to stop fires from spread­ing, staff trained to help se­niors evac­u­ate. But of all the mea­sures, sprin­klers are the most crit­i­cal for se­niors homes, he said. “Sprin­klers are the most ef­fec­tive means of fire pro­tec­tion out­side a well-trained fire depart­ment. They’re ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal in th­ese homes.”

In his home of­fice in On­tario’s Blue Moun­tains ski vil­lage, a short walk from Ge­or­gian Bay, Mintz re­mem­bers the ex­act day he be­came a fire­fighter – Nov. 14, 1977 – “the best day of my life, apart from my wed­ding and the birth of my daugh­ters.” Over the years, he has at­tended “sev­eral” fires at se­niors homes. “There can’t be any­thing more terrifying for a se­nior than try­ing to con­vince them to come with you down a lad­der through the win­dow,” he said.

He likes to use a YouTube video to show the value of sprin­klers. Fire safety ad­vo­cates set up two model liv­ing rooms – one with a sprin­kler, the other with­out – and then light a fire in the trash can. In the first room, the sprin­kler turns on after 14 seconds. Seconds later, the fire is out, with only a few small burns on the cur­tains. The other room takes 90 seconds to achieve flashover, when fire fills a room and tem­per­a­tures can hit 1,000 F. “That’s faster than it takes the fire depart­ment to ar­rive after they’ve been no­ti­fied. Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize how quickly fire spreads,” Mintz said.

The stakes were brought into dra­matic re­lief in a B.C. study in 2013. It looked at all 860 fires re­ported in the prov­ince in homes and apart­ment build­ings that had sprin­klers from 2006 to 2011. Only one per­son died. Mean­while, 143 peo­ple were killed in 8,981 fires in un­sprin­klered res­i­dences. The death rate was 13 times higher with­out sprin­klers.

The chal­lenge for se­niors homes is greater to­day, Mintz said, be­cause they’re filled with syn­thetic-based fur­nish­ings. Fire­fight­ers liken them to “solid gaso­line.” They’re much more flammable than the wood, cot­ton and other nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als used in older house­hold items. A YouTube video shows the dif­fer­ence. Two side-by-side liv­ing rooms are set on fire – one with nat­u­rally made legacy prod­ucts and ma­te­ri­als, the other with mod­ern fur­nish­ings. The first takes 29 min­utes, 25 seconds to achieve flashover, the sec­ond takes three min­utes, 40 seconds.

AFTER RE­TURN­ING HOME, Per­ron was wor­ried. He knew ac­tion to make se­niors homes safer needed to hap­pen quickly be­fore politi­cians and jour­nal­ists lost in­ter­est. L’Isle Verte wasn’t the first dev­as­tat­ing fire in a Cana­dian se­niors home. We had al­ready been down this road be­fore.

At 5:30 a.m. on April 7, 1992, a fire erupted in the Fa­ther Dowd Memo­rial Home se­niors res­i­dence in Mon­treal, killing seven peo­ple. Sprin­klers would have “greatly re­duced” the num­ber of deaths, said coro­ner Cyrille Délâge, the prov­ince’s fire com­mis­sioner, in a scathing re­port. “This kind of fire pro­tec­tion must be oblig­a­tory in all places where the evac­u­a­tion of the res­i­dents is dif­fi­cult be­cause of their phys­i­cal con­di­tion.”

Four years later, on Aug. 31, 1996, another fire erupted in the Villa Sainte-Geneviève se­niors home in Mon­treal’s West Is­land, killing seven res­i­dents. Délâge was again called in. He said sprin­klers could have saved lives and, this time, called on Que­bec to re­quire sprin­klers in all se­niors homes within two years and give own­ers sub­si­dies for the ren­o­va­tions. “Do we still need other ex­am­ples of this kind to act?” he asked. Ev­i­dently, we did. Que­bec ig­nored Délâge’s rec­om­men­da­tions again.

In 2009, yet another se­niors home fire killed four peo­ple in Chicoutimi. This time, even the Que­bec As­so­ci­a­tion of Pri­vate Se­niors Homes called for reg­u­la­tions to force its own mem­bers to in­stall sprin­klers, so long as there was fi­nan­cial aid. “What we sell is se­cu­rity. I said, ‘This can’t hap­pen again. We have to go faster, or there will be more deaths,’” said Yves Des­jardins, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s pres­i­dent. “For the gov­ern­ment, it was a ques­tion of cost and pri­or­ity. There was no ur­gency.” (Retrofitting all se­niors homes in the prov­ince would cost an es­ti­mated $80 mil­lion.)

Des­jardins knows fire safety. He pre­vi­ously worked as a fire safety in­spec­tor, taught fire preven­tion to fire­fight­ers and was found­ing di­rec­tor of the prov­ince’s school for fire­fight­ers, the École na­tionale des pom­piers du Québec. On a cre­denza in his of­fice sits a fire­fighter’s hel­met and a model of a 1934 Sea­grave fire en­gine. He choked up as he spoke about L’Isle Verte. “I’m sorry,” he said after a long pause, clear­ing his nose. “I never thought I’d see a tragedy like this in Que­bec.”

Daniel Per­ron, the fire chief, wor­ried that the L’Isle Verte fire, unimag­in­able as it had been, could be for­got­ten, too, like all the ear­lier fires. “It’s in­cred­i­ble how ev­ery­one tears their shirt in pub­lic after the fires, say­ing, ‘How could this hap­pen?’”

Trou­ble­some signs of dis­sem­bling had started even be­fore the L’Isle Verte fire was com­pletely ex­tin­guished. That first day, Per­ron ran into Que­bec’s then-pub­lic se­cu­rity min­is­ter, Stéphane Berg­eron, in the vil­lage. He asked Berg­eron to hold a pub­lic coro­ner’s in­quest into the fire to es­tab­lish what had gone wrong and how to pre­vent such fires in fu­ture. Berg­eron was non­com­mit­tal, say­ing a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion was un­der­way and would have to fin­ish first.

This ex­pla­na­tion didn’t make sense to Per­ron. At that mo­ment, Que­bec was see­ing near-daily scan­dalous rev­e­la­tions from the Char­bon­neau com­mis­sion, a high-pro­file pub­lic in­quiry into cor­rup­tion in gov­ern­ment con­tracts. That in­quiry was go­ing on at the same time as sev­eral po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the very same cor-

rupt con­tracts. Why was L’Isle Verte any dif­fer­ent?

A few days later, Per­ron’s as­so­ci­a­tion of fire chiefs called pub­licly on Que­bec to ap­point fire com­mis­sioner Cyrille Délâge to do a pub­lic coro­ner’s in­quest into the fire. They said the in­ves­ti­ga­tions un­der way at that point (the Que­bec coro­ner’s of­fice was also do­ing in­quiries nar­rowly fo­cused on the cause of death of each de­ceased) wouldn’t look at broader ques­tions, such as fire safety in se­niors homes and whether they should be equipped with sprin­klers. A pub­lic in­quest could con­sol­i­date all of the deaths into a sin­gle in­ves­ti­ga­tion and hold pub­lic hear­ings into the big­ger ques­tions.

The re­ac­tion in Que­bec City was cool. First, Que­bec of­fi­cials said a decision would have to wait un­til the body re­cov­ery was fin­ished. Then, the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion was blamed again. When then-premier Pauline Marois came to L’Isle Verte after the fire, she lamented: “If only we were able to stop this type of thing from ever hap­pen­ing again.” Colum­nist Christie Blatch­ford, quot­ing Marois in a Na­tional Post piece, re­torted an­grily, “If only we were able to stop such fires? Au­to­matic sprin­klers do pre­cisely that …. Let me be per­fectly clear – there is noth­ing to study. Sprin­klers work.”

Fire chiefs were briefly hope­ful when Lib­eral leader Philippe Couil­lard took over as premier after the provin­cial elec­tion in April. While still in op­po­si­tion, he had sup­ported a pub­lic in­quiry. But once elected, Couil­lard stalled, too, cit­ing the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The rea­son for the stonewalling wasn’t re­ally a mys­tery. It was fairly ob­vi­ous what Délâge would say. He’d been say­ing it for more than 20 years. And now, it had come to this – Que­bec’s heart­land had seen one of Canada’s dead­li­est se­niors home fires. “What will come out is the weak­ness of the reg­u­la­tions and lack of sprin­klers. This is where the gov­ern­ment will feel un­com­fort­able,” Per­ron said.

A broader in­quiry would also lead to de­bate about even more fun­da­men­tal ques­tions, no less un­com­fort­able for Que­bec and other gov­ern­ments across Canada. How much are se­niors val­ued in Cana­dian so­ci­ety? What kind of life awaits Cana­di­ans as they age, and what do they need to do to en­sure it’s a happy one, not cut short in a poorly reg­u­lated se­niors home or ne­glected health sys­tem?

Th­ese ques­tions are in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal to the coun­try’s ag­ing cit­i­zens, said CARP’s Susan Eng. And they don’t like the an­swers. Work­ing from her of­fice in down­town Toronto’s Lib­erty Vil­lage neigh­bour­hood, Eng has brought a force­ful voice to CARP since she came on­board in 2008. Pre­vi­ously, she had been the out­spo­ken chair of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Toronto Po­lice Ser­vices Board, where she cham­pi­oned po­lice ac­count­abil­ity.

“To­day’s se­niors are not your grand­mother’s se­niors,” she said. “They’re a huge pro-ac­tive gen­er­a­tion that won’t take ‘no’ for an an­swer. Politi­cians had bet­ter pay at­ten­tion.”

Case in point: On­tario’s decision last year to re­quire sprin­kler retrofits in all se­niors homes. Fires in the homes had killed 50 On­tario se­niors since 1980. The prov­ince re­lented in large part due to de­ter­mined lob­by­ing by On­tario fire chiefs, CARP and other se­niors. “This is a group,” Eng said, “that has grow­ing clout.”

AT THE OTHER END OF THE COUN­TRY, Stephen Gam­ble was shocked by the fire in Que­bec and alarmed by the pre­var­i­ca­tion from the prov­ince. The 36-year veteran fire­fighter is the fire chief in the leafy semi-ru­ral town­ship of Lan­g­ley, B.C., 50 kilo­me­tres east of Van­cou­ver, and for­mer pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Chiefs. “Peo­ple say, ‘If only we had known how to stop this fire.’ We have known. Sprin­klers are not new tech­nol­ogy. We’ve had them 100 years,” he said.

Out­side his of­fice in Fire Hall #6, he checks off the build­ings equipped with sprin­klers – a town­ship de­vel­op­ment, a mall – and those with­out: the sin­gle-fam­ily houses down the street. “I wish I could say the same for them,” he said.

Gam­ble knows the lack of sprin­klers is a prob­lem across Canada, not just in Que­bec. Thirty-six of B.C.’s 573 se­niors homes were not fully sprin­klered, as of a gov­ern­ment survey last March. On April 3, 2013, one of those un­sprin­klered res­i­dences caught fire in the City of Lan­g­ley – the four-storey Elm se­niors apart­ment build­ing.

Gam­ble and other Lan­g­ley town­ship fire­fight­ers at­tended to as­sist city fire crews with the fire. “They had a hard time push­ing open a door. There was a per­son ly­ing on the ground lean­ing against it on the other side,” he said.

The man, 80, lay be­side his walker steps away from get­ting out. He was later pro­nounced dead. Twelve other se­niors were hos­pi­tal­ized, three with crit­i­cal in­juries. “I prob­a­bly said it half a dozen times that day and in the next days: I wish there were sprin­klers in that home,” Gam­ble said.

But even after that fire and the one in L’Isle Verte, B.C. has yet to re­quire those 36 homes to in­stall sprin­klers. Other prov­inces have also dodged ac­tion. In Man­i­toba, where half of per­sonal care homes aren’t fully sprin­klered, provin­cial Labour and Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Erna Braun said in Fe­bru­ary her prov­ince would not re­quire retrofits. In Al­berta, the prov­ince said in Au­gust it had bud­geted enough to retrofit only five se­niors homes this year out of 202 with­out sprin­klers.

After L’Isle Verte, Gam­ble de­cided ac­tion at the na­tional level may be the best way to get the foot-drag­ging prov­inces to move. He de­cided that get­ting sprin­klers in all se­niors homes in Canada had to be­come his as­so­ci­a­tion’s top pri­or­ity. The fire chiefs had the per­fect plat­form:

their up­com­ing an­nual lob­by­ing ses­sion in March in Ot­tawa with cab­i­net min­is­ters, MPs and fed­eral bu­reau­crats. Forty fire chiefs came from across the coun­try to ask them to im­prove fire safety in se­niors homes.

Their tar­get was the Na­tional Fire Code, a model code of best prac­tices that prov­inces use as the ba­sis for their own fire codes. It cur­rently has no pro­vi­sion re­quir­ing sprin­klers in se­niors homes. The Na­tional Fire Code is up­dated ev­ery five years, and a new code is due out in 2015 – per­fect tim­ing for Gam­ble. The fire chiefs pleaded with the of­fi­cials to amend the next fire code to re­quire sprin­klers in ex­ist­ing se­niors homes.

Fire chief Daniel Per­ron, as the Cana­dian as­so­ci­a­tion’s Que­bec board mem­ber, also came to Ot­tawa. One of his meet­ings was with Lib­eral Op­po­si­tion leader Justin Trudeau, who re­sponded “favourably, of course, like all the politi­cians we met. Who can be against virtue?” Per­ron asked with a hint of irony.

Af­ter­ward, the fire chiefs went home en­cour­aged by the pos­i­tive re­sponse. But in an in­ter­view, the bu­reau­crat in charge of the fire code re­jected the fire chiefs’ idea and passed the ball right back to the prov­inces. “We don’t want the fire code to be a tool to do things retroac­tively. This has to hap­pen at the provin­cial level be­cause ev­ery prov­ince knows what is ap­pro­pri­ate in its ju­ris­dic­tion. It’s not some­thing a tech­ni­cal body like us can de­ter­mine,” said Philip Riz­callah, chair of a fed­eral com­mis­sion that over­sees the fire and build­ing codes as part of the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil.

Gam­ble is in­cred­u­lous. “It’s a po­lit­i­cal decision. It seems like no­body wants to make a move on any­thing. We’re ask­ing for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to show lead­er­ship so we don’t have to say again, ‘If only we had known.’”

Shayne Mintz of the NFPA, who also went to Ot­tawa, shakes his head, too. “This is a fire code is­sue,” he said. As a prece­dent, he cited the On­tario Fire Code, which con­tains an en­tire chap­ter, Part 9, ti­tled Retrofit, solely de­voted to re­quir­ing retrofits in ex­ist­ing build­ings. “Ev­ery re­quire­ment in Part 9 was a re­sult of a large fire loss or fa­tal­i­ties. You retrofit where you have large gaps. What’s wrong with this model? I don’t get it.”

If the cam­paign fails to amend the Na­tional Fire Code in 2015, the fire chiefs will have to wait five more years un­til the next up­date in 2020. In the mean­while, Mintz says Cana­di­ans have to take mat­ters into their own hands. He sug­gests avoid­ing se­niors homes with­out proper fire safety preparedness, in­clud­ing a full com­ple­ment of sprin­klers.

It all leaves Susan Eng of CARP flab­ber­gasted: “Of course, there have to be na­tional stan­dards. Why should there be any dif­fer­ence in any prov­ince?” And se­niors over­whelm­ingly agree. In a survey of 3,100 CARP mem­bers in the days after L’Isle Verte, four in five said Ot­tawa should set na­tional stan­dards for fire safety in se­niors homes. A whop­ping 98 per cent said all se­niors homes should be retro­fit­ted with sprin­klers.

The of­fice of Min­is­ter of State for Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Ed Holder, who over­sees the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil, didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

SUSAN ENG ALSO WANTS TO MAKE A BIG­GER POINT. Se­cu­rity in se­niors homes is about more than fire safety. It’s also about se­niors keep­ing their au­ton­omy and agency, which are just as vi­tal to stay­ing healthy. “We have to start shap­ing in­sti­tu­tions,” Eng said. “Whose life is this any­way? My world should suit me. I shouldn’t have to shoe­horn my­self into it. That’s cru­cial to a per­son’s sense of well-be­ing.”

She points to a re­mark­able award-win­ning se­niors home in Que­bec called La Brunante. In English, the name means The Twi­light. Gas­ton Michaud, the home’s founder and pres­i­dent, ex­plains: “We say se­niors have the whole evening ahead of us and we want to en­joy it.”

Michaud has a con­nec­tion to L’Isle Verte. He was raised on a farm out­side the vil­lage dur­ing the De­pres­sion. His un­cle Paul, 88, lived in the Rési­dence du Havre and was killed in the fire. “It was a cat­a­clysm. The vil­lage stopped liv­ing for a month,” he said.

In La Brunante, Michaud recre­ated some­thing of L’Isle Verte’s tight, long-last­ing com­mu­nity bonds and sel­f­re­liance. The ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sult: the home’s res­i­dents seem almost un­af­fected by age. Av­er­ag­ing 85 years old, they tend a veg­etable gar­den and or­ga­nize a host of ac­tiv­i­ties open to the com­mu­nity – sto­ry­telling, bean­bag base­ball, com­mu­nity din­ners, mu­si­cal shows, bingo. There’s al­ways a jig­saw puz­zle on the go in the common room.

Two res­i­dents in their 70s just came back from a cruise in the Mag­dalen Is­lands. Oth­ers went camp­ing and straw­berry pick­ing. Prepa­ra­tions are un­der way for the 101st birth­day party of the old­est res­i­dent. “He’s in great health and still laughs a lot,” Michaud, 78, said. The 21 res­i­dents are all au­ton­o­mous and rarely need hos­pi­tal care or a long-term care bed be­fore they pass away.

Their se­cret: they run the home

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