Alberta’s safety codes council is frustrated with the province’s slow progress in enacting new rules to better protect seniors in care from fires.
Nearly five years after a blaze in which dozens of residents of an assisted living facility in Edmonton had to be rescued by firefighters, the Conservative government is still talking about whether existing facilities should be retrofitted with sprinklers and if new buildings for the elderly should be safer.
In the wake of the fire last week at a Quebec facility where the death toll may climb to as many as 32 lives, the vice-chair of Alberta’s fire technical council says this province is fortunate its own vulnerable citizens have not been burned while bureaucrats have fiddled.
“It almost happened and could easily occur,” Dale Miller said.
“I’ve been banging on about this for years, but unfortunately it takes a tragedy to get people to pay attention.”
While Alberta has required new care facilities to be sprinklered since 1990, one-third of the 100 or so seniors lodges built before that date have not been upgraded.
An unknown number of older nursing homes that house even frailer residents are also not equipped with fire suppression systems.
Miller, a fire marshal with Strathcona County near Edmonton, said he is also worried about the risk to residents with mobility or cognitive difficulties who live in new buildings with frame construction and multiple storeys.
“They may be sprinklered, but they’re also combustible because they are made of wood,” he said.
“The province has been looking for as many spaces as they can find as cheaply as possible, but they’re forgetting that these people may not be able to get themselves out in the event of a fire.”
When an arsonist set fire to the exterior of the Edmonton facility in May 2009, the blaze quickly crawled up the siding and into the roof of the four-floor complex.
With the elevator out of commission, rescuers had to carry out more than 20 of the 150 residents who had limited mobility.
The building’s management said at the time it was a “miracle” that everyone made it out safely before the structure burned to the ground.
In the incident’s aftermath, Miller wrote to then-municipal affairs minister Hector Goudreau demanding changes to the government’s policy of housing seniors in buildings built to normal residential standards that offered little protection from fires.
If local fire departments felt resident couldn’t evacuate themselves quickly, he warned they might be forced to order their occupancy inappropriate.
“We hope to avoid this drastic and undesirable action,” said Miller, “as we cannot imagine the stress that this action will place on the patient …(and) … their family members.”
Goudreau wrote back to say the safety of all Albertans was of “great importance” to the province and that a working group of various government departments would work with Miller’s safety codes council on a new policy and possible changes to the law.
While meeting minutes show the issue has been discussed regularly over the last four years by the council and among officials with Alberta Health Services, Alberta Health, Alberta Seniors and Alberta Municipal Affairs, there has been little progress toward a solution.
“These discussions involve many complex considerations,” government spokesperson Cam Traynor said in a prepared statement.
In another e-mail, the province said Health Minister Fred Horne had been in touch with recently appointed Municipal Affairs Minister Ken Hughes about the issue and the pair were working on setting up a meeting.
In the meantime, Traynor said the government is providing funding for sprinkler retrofits and upgrades at 26 seniors lodges this years as part of a $31-million capital program.
A 2010 revision to the national building code requires all new or renovated care facilities to be sprinklered, install alarm systems and limits those constructed of combustible materials to no more than three floors.
But Philip Rizcallah, a technical adviser with the National Research Council who helped write the rules, said neither Quebec or Alberta have adopted the new standard.
“We developed it specifically to address the risk seniors who may experience declining abilities as they age in place,” Rizcallah said.
“Alberta has an intention of adopting the new code this year, but we will have to wait and see if it makes local modifications and whether it applies it retroactively.”
Care facilities in the province are required to have monthly evacuation drills, but Calgary’s deputy fire chief questions whether most could get residents to safety promptly, particularly if a blaze broke out overnight when there is minimal staffing.
“They’re normally doing these drills during the day when there’s lots of people around and sometimes we will show up to watch and they already have everyone in wheel chairs by the front door,” Brad Lorne said.
“We want them to be able to get people out during the seven minutes it takes us to arrive, but my fear is that they don’t have the people on hand in off hours to get that done.”
Indeed, a survey last year by the Alberta Senior Citizen’s Housing Association found one-third of lodges in the province only had a single person working overnight, despite the fact that each facility houses an average of around 60 residents.
While adequate staffing is essential, an engineer with a Vancouver-based fire code consultancy said care facilities can buy additional time in a fire by retrofitting with sprinklers at a cost of around $500 a suite.
“Given the revenue they can generate from these units, it’s not a huge expense,” said Randall Kovacs, president of Gage-Babcock and Associates Ltd.
“I believe Alberta’s politicians should insist on sprinklers in all of these facilities, even though they may be to running up against operators who say $3 more a square foot is way too much to be spending.”
Source: Calgary Herald