A deadly fire at a Quebec seniors' home is raising questions about the patchwork of rules around sprinkler use across the country, especially in buildings that house vulnerable seniors.

For years, fire safety advocates have been calling for sprinklers to become as widespread as fire alarms. It’s believed the combination of fire alarms and fire sprinklers can cut the risk of deadly home fires by 80 per cent.

“We know that sprinklers do save lives,” said Laurie Johnston, CEO of the Ontario Retirement Communities Association.

But battles over jurisdiction and concerns over cost have left few communities in Canada where residents benefit from the protections offered by sprinkler systems.

In the early hours of Thursday, a fire ripped through a seniors residence in the small Quebec community of L’Isle-Verte, killing at least five with 30 more still unaccounted for.

The three-storey seniors home reportedly had a partial sprinkler system, but a company that did work on the home said sprinklers were installed in a new annex but not the portion built in 1997 that was destroyed in the fire.

Few communities in Canada have rules requiring sprinklers to protect residents, though a push to protect the most at risk, such as the elderly, is gaining ground.

Last year, Ontario became the first province to mandate that facilities housing seniors and those with disabilities install sprinklers in older buildings. That took it a step beyond requiring new retirement homes to have sprinklers, a rule in place since 1998.

Facilities have a number of years, depending on the type, to install the safety feature.

Ontario Retirement Communities Association’s Johnston notes the need to find a way to prevent the financial burden from falling on current seniors living in the buildings.

Despite the costs, Johnston says, retirement homes haven’t pushed back.

“They understand that it is the right thing to do,” said Johnston.

Updated building code not mandatory

In 2010, the national building code was updated to require any new or renovated care facility to have sprinklers. The code covers any building with residents with physical or cognitive limitations, such as using a wheelchair or suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

residence du havre old versus new wings

The older part of the Résidence du Havre (red) was built in 1997 and has no sprinkler system. The new wing (blue) was added in 2002 and was equipped with sprinklers. Only a portion of the newer wing is still standing. (CBC)

However, provinces and territories choose whether to adopt those standards and can modify them as they like.

Phil Rizcallah, the manager of the Canadian Codes Centre at the National Research Council who worked on the code, says the majority of provinces adopted the national code.

Quebec did not – and even though the provincial government made changes to its rules regarding seniors’ residences last year, sprinklers were not addressed.

When it comes to homes in general, few communities in the country require sprinklers.

Advocates for sprinkler use say that’s in part because national guidelines don’t call for residential sprinklers, and provinces often follow in federal footsteps.

'It’s a 24-hour firefighter in your house is basically what it amounts to.'- Stephen Gamble, president of The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs 

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs has long advocated for residential sprinkler requirements to be added to the federal codes.

“It’s an affordable solution nowadays and it doesn’t require the homeowner to have to maintain it,” said the association’s president Stephen Gamble. “It’s a 24-hour firefighter in your house is basically what it amounts to.”

Several towns decided to create their own bylaws.

In 1990, Vancouver began requiring sprinklers in new residential buildings, becoming the largest city in Canada to do so.

At least two other B.C. communities — Port Coquitlam and Pitt Meadows — have similar bylaws of their own.

But Gamble says that those towns managed to get bylaws passed before the province closed the door on such municipal rules in the 1990s.

“If I tried to bring in a residential sprinkler bylaw, the province would say no,” said Gamble. “It’s going above the provincial building code.”

B.C. is not the only province where municipalities feel hamstrung.

“There are very few communities in Canada that have adopted a sprinkler bylaw,” said Shayne Mintz, Canadian regional director of the U.S.-based National Fire Protection Association. ”In several provinces, under the provisions of the provincial building codes, they’re not permitted.”

Gamble used to work in Port Coquitlam, where sprinklers were mandatory in all buildings from residential to commercial, before moving to Langley, where he serves as the fire chief.

Builders wary of sprinkler costs

Frustrated by the inability to set local rules, Gamble joined the CAFC to try to get the national code changed. He also tries to work with developers to get them to automatically install sprinklers.

A smattering of home builders across the country have vowed to install sprinkler systems in every house they build, but most fear the extra cost.

However, a recent U.S. study examining 17 communities, including Pitt Meadows, B.C., found costs significantly dropped in places that mandated the use of sprinklers — and the cost is falling overall.

In Pitt Meadows, where the rules came into effect in 1998, the cost was 94 cents per square foot, or about $3,000 for a two-storey, 2,500 square foot home, the study by the Fire Protection Research Foundation found.

For Gamble, cost is beside the point when safety is at stake.

“We could reduce the cost of cars by not putting airbags in and not testing,” said Gamble. “But I don’t think the consumer would stand for [it].”

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs is pushing for upcoming national code changes to include mandatory residential sprinklers, but it looks unlikely that will happen.

Mandating sprinklers in residences is still under review and is not expected to make it in the next updates in 2015.