01/22/2015 07:23 EST | Updated 03/24/2015 05:59 EDT

Quebec’s volunteer fire services lag behind, Enquête investigation finds

A year after a seniors’ home fire claimed the lives of 32 people in the small Quebec community of L’Isle-Verte, questions remain about the training and capabilities of volunteer fire services across the province.

The tragedy was a wake up call for many local elected officials. However, Radio-Canada’s Enquêteprogram found many small municipalities still haven’t taken the steps to upgrade antiquated equipment and ensure that all volunteer firefighters have adequate training.

Fire Safety Act passed in 2000

After a spate of lawsuits launched by insurers, the government had no choice but to bring forward change and, in 2000, Quebec’s Fire Safety Act was passed. The legislation required municipalities to establish a fire safety cover plan.

There are more than 700 fire departments in Quebec. In Ontario, there are 450. In France, there are only 98 fire departments across the country.

In 2014, a new fire truck cost about $380,000 on average in Quebec. To address rising costs, Ontario grouped more of its fire departments together. Quebec did the same, but to a lesser extent.

Quebec Fire chiefs have also unsuccessfully fought for the creation of a senior public servant position that would act as an expert and adviser to the Minister of Public Safety, similar to the Office of the Fire Marshal that exists already in nine provinces.

They’ve suggested the national fire academy could fall under that authority, or it could remain autonomous.

The cost of firefighter training has recently doubled, even as the Public Safety Ministry announced more funding for municipalities earmarked for firefighter training.

In Quebec, the ministry plays a minor role in fire safety, with 15 staff dedicated exclusively to fire.

In Ontario, the Office of the Fire Marshal has a staff of 200 to monitor and provide training in fire prevention to local officials.

Ontario, like Newfoundland and Labrador, has some of the most stringent regulations when it comes to buildings that house vulnerable people. In 2019, sprinklers will be mandatory in all retirement homes.

Quality of service inconsistent

The Quebec government has highlighted positive results from the reforms of 15 years ago.

Overall, there are fewer victims of fire than in 2000. But the Enquête investigation shows the situation varies from region to region and the quality of service is inconsistent.

The public security minister has already admitted that, contrary to the intended effect of the Fire Safety Act, the costs of insurance premiums have not decreased. Quebec also still lags far behind in terms of investigations.

It was only recently that the ministry started producing annual statistics for the number of fires and their causes.