The move to enforce new fire safety regulations, which take effect Jan. 1 next year, has been years in the making, the governing Liberals said Thursday.
Currently, only facilities built after 1998 are required to have sprinklers.
"It took a long time, but at the same time, we're the first ones to do it," Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur said Thursday after announcing the new regulations.
Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek called the updated requirements "a significant milestone" that will help protect the lives of seniors and firefighters alike.
Some who welcomed the changes nonetheless expressed concerns about how long it would take to complete the work.
Licensed retirement homes and most private care facilities will have up to five years to install sprinklers, while other facilities — including public long-term care homes — will get up to 11.
That's because the Ministry of Health already has plans in place to renovate the homes it operates by 2025, and the retrofits are part of that process, Meilleur said.
But Paul Miller, an NDP member of the provincial legislature who twice introduced private member's bills on the issue, said it wouldn't cost much to put in sprinklers immediately and build around them.
"How many people could die in 11 years? How many could die in five years?" he said, pointing to a nursing home fire that claimed two lives last year in Hawkesbury, Ont.
Including those deaths, 48 seniors have died in similar circumstances since 1980 in Ontario. Fire-related deaths at seniors homes have also been reported in other provinces.
A fire at a retirement home in Langley, B.C., last month left a man dead and sent several others to hospital.
And a woman in her 70s died in a fire at an Edmonton seniors residence last August.
Joan Williams, 84, lives at The Annex seniors residence in Toronto, where Thursday's announcement took place.
The building was recently outfitted with sprinklers, but seniors living in other facilities might not be so lucky, she said.
"We've been questioning for some time why it's not done everywhere," but now it will be, she said.
About a third of Ontario's roughly 700 retirement homes are still "unsprinklered," said the head of the Ontario Retirement Communities Association, which represents more than 400 facilities.
Most chains have already been working on retrofitting their properties, but the regulations will accelerate the process, Laurie Johnston said.
"It's definitely something that's been on the front burner for some time," she said.
While she couldn't estimate the costs involved for each facility, Johnston said the sector is looking at a minimum expense of $35 million.
Some in the industry were pushing for financial help from the province, Meilleur said. But she said the homes themselves will have to shoulder the expense, much like other facilities did when new accessibility rules were introduced.
The new fire safety regulations, which take effect Jan. 1 next year, also call for more inspections and extra training for residence staff.
Local fire departments will handle enforcement, and review each facility's fire safety plan annually.
They will also be tasked with creating and maintaining a registry of seniors homes and other facilities with vulnerable residents.