05/27/2012 01:48 EDT | Updated 07/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Retirement Home Fire: Ontario Under Pressure To Have Sprinklers In All Seniors' Homes After Fatal Fire

TORONTO - Ontario's governing Liberals are under pressure to require sprinklers in all retirement homes after a fire at a seniors' home near Ottawa killed an elderly couple.

The couple died Friday after a blaze broke out at a Hawkesbury seniors' home. The local fire chief confirmed there were no sprinklers in the facility.

The deaths happened the same day a coroner's inquest into a fatal 2009 fire at an Orillia, Ont., retirement home — which didn't have sprinklers either — released its recommendations.

The coroner's report called for retroactive installation of sprinklers in facilities for vulnerable people like retirement homes — a recommendation the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs wants implemented as soon as possible.

It's the fourth inquest since 1980, when 25 seniors perished in a Mississauga home, said Jim Jessop, chairman of the association's fire prevention committee.

Jessop, who fought another fatal blaze five years ago in Niagara Falls, said he can't believe that nothing has been done to prevent more deaths.

"After witnessing senior citizens that are frail and were scared and were covered in smoke being carried down ladders at our fire in 2008 at the retirement home, it is just morally reprehensible and criminally negligent for this not to be done," he said.

There have been 48 deaths since 1980, Jessop said, adding the government must act now.

"We don't know what to say anymore or what to do," he said. "We don't know why the government has taken so long.

"And certainly the question has to be begged: if this had been school children and schools, would we still be waiting 30 years later to retroactively install sprinklers in schools?"

In April, the government announced a "technical consultation" to identify fire safety improvements in residences for seniors, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.

Ontario Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur says the consultations will examine annual inspections, staff training and additional retrofit requirements, including sprinklers.

"We launched consultations because we know that we can't approach this issue thinking that a one-size-fits-all solution will work across Ontario," Meilleu said in a statement emailed to The Canadian Press Sunday.

"For example, the needs of urban versus rural residences differ greatly. We also have to consider factors like the size of the facility, whether it has access to a municipal water system or is on a well.

"We want to do this quickly, but we want to ensure that we do this right," Meilleu said.

The first consultation meeting is scheduled for June 13.

But the review is expected to take a year to complete and that's too long, said Jessop, who is also Niagara Falls' deputy fire chief.

"The issue of retroactively installing sprinklers in these types of facilities — retirement homes and nursing homes — has been studied to death," he said.

The association wants the review to be expedited and its results implemented before the end of the year.

Niagara Falls and Orillia now require sprinklers in retirement homes, Jessop said. The association is asking fire chiefs across the province to inspect seniors homes in their area and test the evacuation plans.

If it appears that the plans aren't sufficient, the association is asking the chiefs to either order the homes to increase staffing at night — which they have the right to do under the Ontario fire code — or ask the homes to install sprinklers.

Some may argue that installing sprinklers is cost-prohibitive, he said, but that's not true.

"At the end of the day, if that is going to be the defence, then what cost are we putting on the lives of senior citizens in these homes?" Jessop said.

Any nursing or retirement home built after 1997 must have sprinklers, but those built before that year aren't required to install them, he said. There are about 4,000 such homes in Ontario.

Friday's fire at the Place Mont-Roc home, about 100 kilometres east of Ottawa, forced nearly 90 residents to evacuate.

The cause of the blaze, which broke out on the third floor of the facility, is unknown and the Ontario Fire Marshal has been called in, said Hawkesbury Fire Chief Ghislain Pigeon.

The retirement home had been inspected in recent months and was up to code, he added. A sprinkler system was not part of building requirements.

The June 2009 blaze at Orillia's Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence killed four people and left six elderly residents critically injured — a toll fire officials called needless.

Several of the 39 recommendations made by the coroner's inquest were related to automatic sprinklers and the retrofitting of such sprinklers in retirement homes and assisted living centres.

The jury recommended that smoke detectors be installed in all sleeping rooms, and automatic door closers and hold open devices be installed throughout the facilities.

The jurors also recommended that all fire departments should develop and implement regular mock evacuation programs for retirement residences.