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Quebec’s deadly seniors’ home fire spurs debate in Alberta

EDMONTON – The fatal fire at a Quebec seniors’ complex has politicians, seniors associations, and emergency officials looking at how Alberta’s seniors’ facilities could be made safer.

“There are many risks,” said Edmonton Fire Chief Ken Block. “We’re not immune to those risks, and certainly fire can happen anywhere.”

“This is a huge sign to say we really should sprinkler our old buildings if we’re going to keep putting very frail and vulnerable seniors into those buildings,” Irene Martin, executive director of the Alberta Senior Citizens Housing Association.

In Alberta, fire sprinkler systems have been mandatory in any residence over four storeys high built after 1990. However, the legislation was enacted on a go-forward basis – meaning any new residences built must have them, but many older buildings haven’t been updated to add them.

In fact, Edmonton’s fire chief estimates more than one-third of local seniors’ homes do not have sprinklers.

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“We do have a number of care facilities that were built under the code of the day,” said Block, “and that don’t have the sprinklers.”

He says, out of about 121 residences, 49 aren’t equipped with sprinkler systems, and are therefore classified as ‘high risk locations.’

A ‘high risk’ classification allows the fire department to conduct annual inspections of the building. As well, the facility must have active and approved fire safety plan.

“When it comes to life safety in a fire situation, sprinklers are very effective,” he said. “I’m a big advocate for the inclusion of sprinklers.”

Block says the only way to get all Edmonton seniors’ homes equipped with sprinkler systems is to make the retrofit mandatory.

The Wildrose Party wants the government to consider it.

“I think we have to take the advice of the fire chiefs,” said Wildrose seniors critic Kerry Towle. “If that’s what their recommendation is, then absolutely.”

“If there are facilities that are missing fire safety precautions, then we certainly need to take action and I hope the minister can absolutely start that process.”

The Alberta Senior Citizens Housing Association is pushing the government to offer funding to retrofit older buildings with sprinklers.

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“If it’s going to be mandatory…there would need to be funding, because they serve the lowest income senior and don’t have the resources,” said Martin.

“Where does the money come from? If your revenue is regulated by government, there’s no other source of funding,” she explained.

FACT FILE: Fatal fires involving retirement and nursing homes in Canada 

In L’Isle-Verte, Quebec, the seniors’ home was a three-storey building that opened in 1997. Parts of the building had sprinklers, while others didn’t. The local fire chief said sprinklers did go off, triggering the fire alarm and allowing firefighters to gain access to about one-third of the building.

A Quebec Health Department document states the building had a fire alarm and that each room was equipped with a smoke detector.

Watch below: There were no sprinklers in the section of the Quebec seniors’ complex that burnt to the ground on Thursday, something building inspectors and firefighters have for years been demanding at such personal care facilities. Shirlee Engel reports.

Many of the residents were over 85 and all but a handful had limited movement, being confined to wheelchairs and walkers.

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Firefighters were unable to carry out a complete evacuation of the 52-unit residence because the intensity of the fire limited their access.

WATCH: Apartment fire kills Edmonton senior 

Block offered his condolences to the families impacted by the Quebec fire. He acknowledged that the tragedy is casting a light on safety regulations at seniors’ facilities across the country.

“It’s a horrible situation – horrific, as a matter of fact – something good has to come from it. So, let’s hope that’s what happens.”