The Manitoba government is striking a task force to improve fire safety in personal care homes but is stopping short of making sprinkler systems mandatory in all care homes.

“We have a variety of ages of facilities and not all of them are built in such a way that we can retrofit them with sprinkler systems,” said Erna Braun, minister responsible for the Office of the Fire Commissioner, in announcing the Fire Safety Task Force.

In January, CBC News reported that of Manitoba’s 125 personal care homes, 24 have only partial sprinkler systems and 39 have no sprinklers at all. 

Unlike Manitoba, Ontario announced in May 2013 that it would require all nursing homes without sprinkler systems to install them, and allowed 11 years to complete the work.

Since 1998 Manitoba's building code has required all newly built or extensively renovated personal care homes to have full sprinkler systems installed. However, the provincial government did not require older facilities to be retrofitted to meet the same standards.

In 2012 the provincial Building Standards Board considered the issue of whether sprinkler retrofits for personal care homes should be mandatory, but the Board recommended against it.

An April 2012 letter from the Board to the Minister of Labour said, “It was the consensus to not mandate the installation of sprinklers in existing personal care homes and hospitals in the province at this time.”

The Board instead called for a review of “the requirements for a full sprinkler system retrofit at the time of a major renovation or alterations to the existing facility as a more cost effective means of phasing in sprinkler systems.”

The Building Standards Board is comprised of about a dozen appointees representing varied interests such as fire chiefs, engineers, architects, home builders, and insurance brokers.

The fire safety task force will review fire safety in facilities that house vulnerable people including retirement homes, assisted living and supportive housing, hospitals and group homes.

The province is also dedicating up to $7 million annually for sprinkler and other fire safety upgrades in those facilities. And a $2-million fire safety fund will also being created to cover any unforeseen expenses. 

Braun said the money comes from an existing budget for improvement of health facilities and does not represent new spending.

"There's nothing more important to families than knowing their loved ones are being taken care of and are safe in their homes," said Health Minister Erin Selby.

"The fire safety measures in place today are already very strong, but with the recent tragedy at a seniors home in Quebec, we want to be sure that we are doing absolutely everything possible to protect residents and staff."

After the January fire at L’Isle-Verte, Quebec that left more than 30 people dead or missing, Ontario said it would look at speeding up its phase-in of sprinkler systems in nursing homes.

The Manitoba task force will provide advice on timelines for sprinkler installations and on facilities where sprinkler retrofits would be appropriate.

It will be chaired by staff from the Office of the Fire Commissioner and include representatives from the Manitoba Building Standards Board, the Manitoba Association of Fire Chiefs, front-line fire services, regional health authorities and several provincial departments.

The task force will look at a range of fire and life safety activities including fire protection and early warning systems, code enforcement and inspections, education and prevention, and emergency and fire planning, the province said.

Recommendations from the task force are expected in fall 2014.

"Fire sprinkler systems are just one important element of fire safety plans in health-care facilities," said Braun.

She was unable to say how many of the personal care homes fall into the category of those than cannot be retrofitted with sprinklers.