Saturday, August 1, 2015

Seniors’ fire safety on the radar

A fatal blaze last Thursday at the Residence du Havre in L’Isle-Verte, Que. has raised concerns across Ontario, and the rest of Canada, as to how safe seniors’ residences are.
But local officials are confident they are as prepared as they can be.

“I think we are as well prepared to respond to an urgent situation, including a fire, at Rainycrest as any other long-term home is in the province of Ontario,” said Allan Katz, CEO and president of Riverside Health Care Facilities, Inc. here.
“Do we invest a whole lot of time, effort, and energy into being proactive? Absolutely, and I think that’s the best thing,” he added.
“To prevent any unwanted incident, like a fire, is certainly better than responding to one while it’s happening.
“Resident, staff, and visitor safety is of paramount concern,” Katz stressed.
“And so that’s why we take the time, effort, and energy to invest as much in proactive emergency management planning as we do at Rainycrest, as we do at any other long-term site and hospital site that is operated by Riverside.”
Rainycrest’s emergency management program includes three fire drills per month for all shifts (days, evenings, and nights), fire extinguisher training and testing, smoke alarm testing, regular maintenance audits on all electrical equipment, and monthly emergency planning meetings with the Fort Frances Fire & Rescue Service.
The building is inspected annually by the Fort Frances Fire & Rescue Service.
As well, generator testing is performed monthly (since all fire alarm equipment runs off back-up batteries and generators) and the fire alarm system is monitored 24 hours/day by an independent monitoring company.
While Rainycrest does have a separate chemical fire suppression system in the kitchen, it does not have a sprinkler system throughout the facility.
Katz noted the Ontario government announced last May that all private retirement homes must install sprinklers within five years.
The deadline for publicly-funded nursing homes like Rainycrest is not until 2025.
This phased-in approach is meant to coincide with provincial plans to re-develop older homes to bring them up to modern standards. Built in 1983, Rainycrest is considered an older home, Katz said.
“The temporary displacement of residents during renovation to remove ceilings and install pipes would be confusing to many vulnerable seniors, and a significant and costly undertaking,” he remarked.
“If a home like Rainycrest is slated to be rebuilt, investing in a sprinkler retrofit—estimated to be between $1 and $2 million—makes little sense, particularly in a tight economic climate.
“We understand that the province is behind schedule to rebuild homes due to funding availability,” Katz added.
“More provincial support would accelerate the pace of redevelopment and speed up the renewal process for Rainycrest that would include life-saving sprinklers and other contemporary building system upgrades,” he stressed.
According to Katz, Health and Long-Term Care minister Deb Matthews was quoted last week as saying: “There is a phase-in period [for sprinklers] so I think we do have to take another look to see if there’s anything we can do to accelerate that.”
But then just yesterday, Matthews said her party would establish a government-wide third-party office to which patients can appeal when they’re not satisfied with their treatment at hospitals and other health-care facilities.
This clearly would cost money on a provincial basis, said Katz.
“So we’re at a stage now where we [the people of Ontario] have to decide, have to figure out, what takes precedence,” he reasoned.
“Are we going to accelerate the pace of rebuilding, redeveloping aging long-term care homes in the province so that they include sprinklers and other contemporary building management systems?
“Or are we going to put in place a system where people can speak with a new patient advocate office everywhere, regardless of where they are?”
“Can we do both? Can we afford to do both?” wondered Katz. “And what’s the priority? What’s more urgent?
“And that’s not a question I can answer—that’s way above my pay grade,” he remarked.
“I think I know where I’d put my vote.”
Fort Frances Fire Chief Frank feels Rainycrest is well-prepared for emergencies.
Not only does it practice a thorough emergency management program, but the single-storey facility itself is laid out with clear separations between different areas to mitigate the spread of any potential fire.
And it has an excellent alarm system.
“We’ll know very quickly if there is a fire there,” Chief Sheppard remarked. “In fact, there is a percentage of calls that we go to there that really just mimic a fire.
“We’ve had at least two calls to my knowledge, probably three, where steam from a ruptured steam pipe has set off the alarms,” he noted.
“Their alarm system there is very, very good.
“So our primary interest right now, at it sits, is maintaining the separations in place in the building to protect people, and making sure their alarm systems are functioning and people can get out without risk to themselves,” Chief Sheppard added.
In regards to seniors’ apartments in town, like Rose and Green Manors and Flinders Place, Chief Sheppard said the fire department does annual inspections of alarm systems at all local buildings housing “vulnerable residents,” and then does any necessary follow-up.
“A percentage of those [apartments], even older construction ones, actually have a sprinkler in service areas and storage areas and areas of risk, where there is a higher-than-normal likelihood of fire occurring,” he noted.
Chief Sheppard said that over the years, there have been some “pretty significant” apartment fires in some local seniors’ buildings.
“For the most part, what happens is any of the damage is limited to the space that’s initially involved,” he explained.
“A kitchen or within that actual living space.
“Our doors are designed to have self-closers, so if the people are awakened or have to get out because of a smoke alarm going off inside their apartment, as soon as they leave, the doors closes behind them and any fire is limited to that space,” he added.
Many apartment units also have concrete walls, which helps greatly with stopping fire from spreading to another unit.
Katz called the event last week in Quebec “tragic.”
“Toutes nos sympathies et pensées sont avec la communauté de L’Isle Verte, en particulier les victimes et leurs familles,” he said Monday.
(“All our sympathies and thoughts are with the L’Isle Verte community and, in particular, the victims and families,” he translated).
Chief Sheppard agreed.
“You feel terrible for the community and the families that were involved,” he remarked.
“With the number of people that appear to be involved in it, it’s going to affect nearly every family in the community.”
Chief Sheppard added he will be “very interested” to learn more about the cause of the fatal fire as the investigation there continues.

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