Staffing levels at Thunder Bay long-term care homes drop off sharply at night.

That's a concern for health-care workers, especially in the wake of the tragic fire at a Quebec retirement home.

Kristine Wilson, who has worked in Thunder Bay long-term care homes for 15 years, said she worries about what would happen if a fire broke out at night.

"On my unit, there's 38 residents. And I know on a night shift there is one [personal support worker] and one [registered practical nurse],” she said.

She said most residents need hands-on help from staff to get out of bed.

“They need wheelchairs. They need to be mechanically lifted out of bed. They're confused ... Some of them could be aggressive."

Each of Thunder Bay's three city-owned long-term care homes — Dawson Court, Grandview Lodge and Pioneer Ridge — has 150 beds, according to administrators.

In the daytime, each home has around 30 care workers on duty, as well as other staff, such as maintenance workers and dietary aides.

But at night, there are nine: one registered nurse, four registered practical nurses, and four personal support workers — all of whom are spread across multiple units.

Administrators say staffing is based on available funding and on the care needs of residents.

Staffing is not based on evacuation needs. However, the homes are still required to pass fire drills.

'Risky' staffing levels

The president of SEIU Healthcare, the union that represents home-care workers, said in the wake of last week's seniors' home fire in Quebec, more staffing is critical to preventing similar tragedies from happening in Thunder Bay and Ontario.

Sharleen Stewart

Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, says her members face tough working conditions and low wages. (Supplied)

Sharleen Stewart said long-term care residents need more extensive care — including at night — when emergencies often happen.

"Even to lift clients now ... it's a two-person lift,” she said.

Caring for people on a daily basis is a struggle, she said, never mind attempting to do so “in a crisis, and in an emergency like that fire."

Although safety risks in nursing homes can never be fully eliminated, Stewart said increased staffing would reduce them.

"They are so stretched that there is no way that they can be watching residents adequately ... The staffing levels are … very risky because they're not adequate," she said.

Ontario's Long-Term Care Homes Act does not specify a minimum number of staff per resident in nursing homes.  One RN is required to be on-site at all times. In terms of other staff, such as registered practical nurses and personal support workers, the act says the nursing home must have adequate staff to meet the care needs of residents.

CBC News also asked Revera, a private company which runs three long-term care homes in Thunder Bay, how many staff are on duty at night in their homes. They emailed the following response:

"Our hearts and sincere condolences are with those impacted by the tragic fire in Quebec.

“We operate three long term care residences in Thunder Bay (Lakehead Manor, Pinewood Court and Roseview Manor), and all three are fully equipped with sprinkler systems. Revera is committed to being a leader in fire safety, and have invested more than 50 million dollars to ensure that all of our nearly 200 Long Term Care homes and Retirement communities are equipped with sprinklers. We completed these installations at the end of 2012, prior to new Government legislation in Ontario, announced last year, that gives the retirement sector five years to install sprinkler and long-term care homes 10 years.

“We fully comply with Ministry of Health regulations regarding staffing, which includes 24/7 registered nurse coverage. Other staff varies based on resident acuity at any given time and the structure of the home. In February of 2013, all three of our Thunder Bay homes underwent unannounced fire safety evacuation drills by the local fire department; these drills tested evacuation timelines that met the fire department's standards. All three homes successfully passed and all three have approved current fire safety plans."