L'Isle-Verte fire renews sprinkler concerns in Manitoba

More than half of the licensed personal care homes in Manitoba do not have full sprinkler systems installed, CBC News has learned in the wake of a deadly fire at a Quebec retirement home.
More than half of the licensed personal care homes in Manitoba do not have full sprinkler systems installed, CBC News has learned in the wake of a deadly fire at a Quebec retirement home. 2:16

More than half of the licensed personal care homes in Manitoba do not have full sprinkler systems installed, CBC News has learned in the wake of a deadly fire at a Quebec retirement home.

Early Thursday morning, fire ripped through a seniors residence in the small Quebec community of L’Isle-Verte, killing at least eight people with about 30 more still unaccounted for.

The three-storey facility 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 that was destroyed in the fire.

On Friday, the owners of the home said they may not rebuild in the aftermath of the tragedy.

In Manitoba, there have been more than 150 fires in personal care homes since 1997.

The issue of sprinkler systems in seniors homes surfaced in 2010, when a fire forced out residents of St. Joseph's Residence, a long-term care facility in Winnipeg.

At the time of the fire, a sprinkler system was in only 10 per cent of the 100-bed building.

Shortly after the fire at St. Joseph's, the CBC News I-Team found that of the 124 care homes in Manitoba, 38 had no sprinkler systems in place, while another 35 had partial systems.

Currently, of the 125 licensed personal care homes in the province, 54 have full sprinkler systems installed.

Thirty-five facilities have no sprinkler systems, and 36 have only partial systems, a government spokesperson confirmed Friday.

The chief executive officer of St. Joseph's told CBC News that no sprinklers have been added since the fire, but officials will be asking for them in the spring when new budgets are approved.

Another 15 fires have been reported in personal care homes with nursing staff since the St. Joseph's fire happened, according to the provincial fire commissioner's office.

$7.3M spent on upgrades since 2009

The Manitoba government says it has spent more than $7.3 million on sprinkler upgrades and installations in personal care homes since 2009.

Care homes in Winnipeg

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says of the 24 non-proprietary personal care homes in the city, 16 have full sprinkler systems and six have partial systems.

Two homes, Fred Douglas Lodge and West Park Manor, have no sprinkler systems in place, according to the health authority.

The WRHA says of the 13 proprietary personal care homes in Winnipeg, all but one have full sprinkler systems.

As well, Manitoba is one of the only provinces in Canada that requires annual fire inspections for personal care homes, said the government spokesperson.

The province made it mandatory in 1998 for all new and renovated personal care homes to have full sprinkler systems installed, but the legislation did not apply to care homes built before then.

A government spokesperson would not say if Manitoba will update its laws to force older care homes to upgrade their sprinkler systems.

As well, the province would not say how many of the older care homes have been upgraded to full sprinkler systems.

Labour Minister Erna Braun and other cabinet ministers were not available to comment on Friday.

"As you know, safety is a primary concern for our government, which is why we've continued to make investments in safety at [personal care homes]. We will have more to say on this in the coming weeks," a spokesperson stated in an email.

Progressive Conservative seniors critic Cliff Graydon says he fears a tragedy similar to what happened in Quebec could happen in Manitoba.

"It's not will it happen, it's when will it happen," he said.

Graydon accused the NDP government of not making the issue of sprinklers in personal care homes a priority.

"Our party believes that we need to protect our seniors, and we understand as well that you can't do it all in one day," he said.

"But you have to have the will to do it, and I don't believe that will has been there."

Sprinklers offer no guarantees: firefighters' union

The union representing Winnipeg firefighters warns that sprinkler systems offer no total guarantees in the event of fire.

Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said sprinkler systems can even give a false sense of protection.

"It's not this automatic thing that when you have a fire that sprinklers will work," Forrest said.

"Even though they're looked at every year and such, some of these sprinkler systems have not had water through them in a long, long time."

Forrest added that when a building is retrofitted with sprinklers, there are often "dead zones" that have no protection.

"Because what you're doing is you're retrofitting the older home, or the older building, and it was not made for sprinklers," he said.

"So there's different areas that might not be sufficiently protected."

Woman 'terrified' by Beausejour fire

Judy Lord, whose 90-year-old mother lives in a seniors complex in Beausejour, Man., says the fatal fire in L’Isle-Verte should concern anyone with a loved one in a seniors home.

When fire broke out at the home last spring, residents with walkers and wheelchairs could not escape their second-floor rooms, said Lord, who was staying with her mother.

"It's made me absolutely terrified. I can imagine all of the families who have parents on second floors, as I do, will be equally petrified," she said.

The fire was contained and no one was hurt, but Lord said no one came to the aid of the residents who could not get out.

She has complained to local health officials, but she said nothing has changed.

"We don't take as good care of old people as we do of many other vulnerable sections of the population, and that's got to stop," she said.

Lord said all seniors homes should have staff on every floor to help people escape in an emergency.