Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Millions spent on upgrades, but more than a third of Manitoba personal care homes lack full sprinkler systems

Despite improvements made in recent years, 48 of 125 care homes in the province have either no sprinklers or a partial system.

6 years after fatal care home fire prompted changes, 48 of 125 care homes have no sprinklers or partial system

Fire engulfs a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., on Jan. 23, 2014. The fire claimed 32 lives and highlighted the risks of care homes without sprinkler systems. In Manitoba, legislation says personal care homes and health facilities must be equipped with sprinklers by Jan. 1, 2026. (Frances Drouin/The Canadian Press)

More than one third of the personal care homes in Manitoba still do not have a full sprinkler system to protect residents, six years after a fatal fire at a Quebec nursing home shed light on the risks of care homes without automatic sprinkler systems.

In the wake of the tragic January 2014 fire at a nursing home fire in L'Isle-Verte, Que., which killed 32 residents, a Manitoba task force reviewed the situation in this province. That prompted the NDP government of the day to amend the Manitoba Fire Code.

A change passed in 2015 required personal care homes and health facilities in Manitoba to be equipped with sprinklers within a decade — by Jan. 1, 2026. 

"Why the delay?" said Jean Medwid, whose husband lives in the personal care home at Arborg, Man. "Why so long to get it done if they feel it's that important? Nobody knows when something could strike."

The personal care home doesn't currently have a sprinkler system, though it's due to get one this year.

Figures provided by Manitoba Health show 24 of the 125 personal care homes in the province have no sprinkler system. Another 24 have only a partial system.

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That means 77 personal care homes now have full sprinkler systems — an improvement over 63 in 2015.

"There has been some progress but we still have a long way to go," Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard said in an interview with CBC News. 

Manitoba Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard is urging health authorities to speed up the installation of sprinkler systems in personal care homes and hospitals. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"It really has been too slow, and I think that the government needs to get to work and complete the job much more quickly," he said.

"The last thing we need is a disaster like happened in Quebec."

And fires do happen. In the 11 years from 2009 to 2019, there were 145 reports of fires at Manitoba residences for seniors, according to the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

Manitoba's hospitals are also required to have sprinklers, but the latest figures from the health department show that of 76 hospitals, only 35 either have a full sprinkler system in place or are in the process of having one installed. 

That leaves 17 hospitals that have no sprinklers and 24 that have only a partial system.

'We need to speed it up'

This is despite millions of dollars allocated so far for installing sprinkler systems.

Since 2015, the province has spent or committed $25.5 million for the installation of sprinklers at personal care homes and hospitals, a Manitoba Health spokesperson said in a statement to CBC News.

The province has been allocating about $7 million annually in recent years toward sprinklers and other fire safety equipment in health facilities, the spokesperson said.

Five years ago, the costs for fire safety upgrades at health facilities in Manitoba were estimated at $125 million by the Office of the Fire Commissioner. The province says costs for sprinklers are difficult to estimate until designs are approved, due to factors such as the municipal water supply.

"It's easy to do the math — at the rate we're going it's not fast enough," said Gerrard. "We need to speed it up."

Figures from the health department show 24 personal care homes in Manitoba have no sprinkler systems and another 24 have only partial systems. (Vera-Lynn Kubinec/CBC)

The government will meet the requirements set out in the Manitoba Fire Code, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said in an email statement to CBC News.

"We expect to accelerate this modernization and upgrading of fire and life safety equipment at these facilities in the months ahead as we continue work that was ignored by the former NDP government for years," said Friesen.

One Manitoba community that will see its health facilities become equipped with sprinkler systems this year is Arborg, where Medwid's husband lives.

She said he's unable to walk, and added she was unaware the personal care home didn't have a sprinkler system. 

While she's pleased that Arborg is getting the upgrade this year, she said other families might be concerned if they knew the care home didn't have sprinklers.

"Oh my goodness!" she replied, in response to the 145 fires reported at seniors residences since 2009.

The sprinkler installation at Arborg hospital and personal care home has been approved for tender this spring. 

In addition to the Arborg project, the Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority says it's allocating about $12.3 million this year for six other sprinkler installations located at Teulon, Eriksdale, Lundar, and Whitemouth. 

When that work is done, the Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority says all 10 of its hospitals will have sprinklers. Of its 16 personal care homes, four will have only partial sprinkler systems and one — at Ashern — will have no sprinklers.

"A sprinkler system for Ashern [personal care home] is among priorities for consideration for safety and security funding in Interlake-Eastern RHA," a spokesperson said in a statement to CBC News.

In Winnipeg, the fire department said it inspects health care facilities annually and has found them to be compliant with current regulations.

When it comes to the requirement that all facilities have sprinklers by 2026, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service inspectors "routinely remind building owners of the pending changes that will be required," a department spokesperson said. 

"WFPS crews regularly create plans for responding to high-rise buildings and buildings with special considerations, such as hospitals or personal care facilities."

The province provided this list of personal care homes and hospitals with no sprinklers or partial systems, as well as projects currently underway. Proprietary (for profit) care homes are not included. 

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