The tragic seniors residence fire in idyllic L’Isle Verte that claimed the lives of 32 seniors was an avoidable tragedy.
All of Quebec’s elderly—not just those with reduced mobility and autonomy—deserve protection and care in their declining years. The men and women who perished deserved better, and what is shocking is that it could have been prevented.
The 52-unit wooden building was only partially equipped with sprinklers, installed in a firewalled annex, but not in the original building where the blaze erupted. The residence was in conformity with the Quebec building code, which only requires sprinklers in existing buildings if they are above six storeys—Residence du Havre was three storeys—and housed only non-autonomous residents.
Many of those who perished were classified as semi-autonomous, but as experts point out, the difference with someone classified as autonomous can be marginal in terms of mobility and ability to act in an emergency. The residence permit said 34 were semi-autonomous and 18 autonomous. Thirty-seven were at least 85 years old. Loss of autonomy can be gradual and not noticed by even the most meticulous caregiver.
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Two persons were reported on duty overnight, which is more than the provincial minimum, but when fire erupts in a wooden home how can they be expected to assist people who may use walkers, are under medication or in the early stages of Alzheimer’s? The answer to these questions will only be made clear once there is a coroner’s inquest or broader inquiry, which should be held to ensure this does not happen again. Increased staffing overnight will boost costs in these homes, but surely the provincial minimum of one staffer at all times for every 100 semi-autonomous residents is inadequate for a residence not sprinkler-equipped.
The emergency plan at this home depended on firefighters arriving in time for a complete evacuation, but it took a reported eight minutes for them to arrive, and by then the building was reported to have become a flaming and smoke-filled inferno.
According to experts, the bottom line on fire safety is to have a functioning sprinkler system in every facility. There is a national fire code, but only Ontario has ordered a retrofit of sprinklers in all seniors homes. They have been given up to five years to comply, not a comforting thought for those who are in homes or who will move into one in the next few years.
Only a bit less than half, or 46 per cent, of Quebec’s private homes for the elderly have sprinklers. This is an obvious target for urgent government regulation, and possible incentives, such as tax credits, to encourage their rapid installation.