Care home sprinklers under fire

Many personal care homes in Manitoba provide a false sense of security because they have incomplete sprinkler systems or none at all, a CBC News investigation has found.
More than half of the care homes in Manitoba have either partial sprinkler systems or none at all. ((CBC))
Many personal care homes in Manitoba provide a false sense of security because they have incomplete sprinkler systems or none at all, a CBC News investigation has found.

Last week, a fire at St. Joseph's Residence, a 100-bed long-term care facility on Leila Avenue in Winnipeg, forced out residents and one employee had to be treated for smoke inhalation.

There is a sprinkler system in St. Joseph's Residence, but only in 10 per cent of the building. The generator room, where the fire started, does not have one.

"That really, really scares me. They're seniors, how are they supposed to escape out of a fire?" said Nancy Wittman, whose uncle is one of the residents.

That fire prompted CBC's I-Team to look into the status of sprinkler systems in the province's 124 personal care homes.

Of those, 38 have no sprinkler systems at all and another 35 have only partial systems, which means a select few rooms are equipped.

Included in the 124 care homes are the 37 in Winnipeg, of which 12 have partial systems and four have none at all.

"Partial systems are as bad, if not worse, than not having it at all. Partial systems are unreliable systems," said Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg (UFFW) union.

Nancy Wittman's uncle is a resident at a care home that was evacuated last week due to a fire.
"We have to know if that building is [fully equipped with sprinklers] or not."

Partial systems give residents a false sense of security, he said.

A fire at an Ontario nursing home in 1980 killed 25 seniors. That home was only partially equipped with sprinklers.

There have been more than 135 fires at Manitoba personal care homes since 1997 — 17 last year alone.

In 1998, the Manitoba government decided that every new personal care home must be equipped with a full sprinkler system.

The older care homes were not required to upgrade.

Three years later, in 2001, a 76-year-old woman, Isobel Lathan, died in a fire at an older 28-bed group home Laurier, Man. An inquest was launched and the judge found that if the home had been "equipped with a sprinkler system, there probably would not have been a fire."

It went on to say older care facilities should be forced to install sprinkler systems "which would serve to reduce the likelihood of deaths."

Jennifer Howard, minister of labour and immigration, admits sprinklers are important but said the government has focused on other areas.

Alex Forrest, president of the Winnipeg firefighters' union says many care homes are giving people a false sense of security. ((CBC))
According to a statement from the province, sprinklers are considered the last line of defense in fire safety. In personal care homes, the focus is on prevention to minimize the risk of fires and the need to evacuate.

"This can include simple but important processes like regular housekeeping and appropriate storage of flammable materials. Manitoba Health and other agencies also conduct regular reviews to determine if there are any risks on site that could result in a loss of life," the statement said.

All personal care homes have early warning alarm systems and there are fire separations between resident's rooms and corridors, to contain and to prevent the spread of smoke and flames.

In addition, the buildings are separated into compartments to contain smoke and fire to the given compartment in which the fire occurs. Compartments are constructed to provide at least one hour of resistance to fire to enable evacuation, according to the statement.

While he appreciates the fire safety in construction, Forrest says there are no excuses for not having complete sprinkler systems. 

"Every seniors' home should be [retrofitted with full sprinkler systems], and every seniors' home, regardless of the cost, has to be done or else you have to build new seniors homes," said Forrest.

"They're just too vulnerable. It's just too dangerous [not to have those systems]."

While at least five other provinces and territories are making complete sprinkler systems mandatory in care homes, the Manitoba government is waiting for a report, which should be delivered sometime this year, before making any decisions on the matter.

A spokesperson with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the governing body for care homes in the city, said all care homes under its authority are equipped with alarms and all staff are properly trained in evacuation procedures.

The WRHA doesn't have the authority to force older nursing homes to install sprinkler systems because Manitoba's fire code is a provincial statute, the spokesperson said.

Forrest fears nothing will change until a firefighter or a senior dies.

"We need the strong political laws because there's always lobby groups that fight against it because of one reason: the cost," he said.

Wittman, who struggled to get her uncle into a long-term care home, felt relieved when she finally got him into St Joseph's a few years ago.

The staff is great and he's well treated there, she said. However, since learning about the limited sprinkler system in the facility, her feelings have soured somewhat.

"I'm not pleased with the government. I'm not pleased with the regional health authority," she said.

"They forget that they are getting older —  we're all getting older — and one day were all going to end up in a place like that."

Source: Winnipeg Regional Health Authority

*St. Norbert Personal Care Home is currently getting quotations on putting in a sprinkler system.