Co-owner, residents of Cornwall group home shut down by fire officials refuse to leave
Home operator says fire department is being heavy-handed in enforcing rules
Several people have decided to stay put inside a Cornwall, Ont., group home, the city's fire chief says, even though the building has been shut down over fire safety concerns.
"They should not be in [there]," Matt Stephenson told CBC News on Saturday. "We're talking about fire and life safety issues that are ongoing."
On Thursday, the City of Cornwall announced its fire department had closed The Care Centre at 510 Second St. following complaints related to fire safety.
Inspections had found "numerous serious fire safety violations of the Ontario Fire Code," according to the city.
The facility's co-owner and operator, Dan Orr, says Cornwall Fire Services is being heavy-handed in its enforcement of safety rules, however.
"They're trying to find any reason they can whatsoever to shut me down. And this has happened for years," Orr said.
Fire alarm issues
According to Orr, about 40 residents lived at the facility — previously home to the Cornwall General Hospital — before the evacuation order.
They received lodging and three meals a day but no medical care, he said.
"I require that everybody here is ambulatory so that .... if there were an emergency, they can proceed to the stairwell by themselves," Orr said.
A notice that's been posted on The Care Centre's front doors in the wake of the evacuation order sets out several issues with the building:
- The building's fire alarm was not being maintained in operating condition.
- A fire alarm panel on the third floor, where residents live, wasn't communicating with the panel on the main floor, which is no longer supported by its manufacturer.
- The main floor's fire panel can't be repaired because of its age.
Fixes and replacements are required by Sept. 1.
"What we're talking here is just the lack of an operational fire alarm system," Stephenson said. "This is the core of ensuring residents can evacuate the building safely."
A private security firm is now at the building keeping watch in case there's a fire, he said, adding that not all of the residents could walk under their own power.
"You have a very mixed population that have some very significant needs and requirements," he said.
But Orr said one resident, while a double leg amputee, "was able to make it down the stairs" during a recent fire drill.
"I have another lady missing a leg. She went down on her bum," he said.
One person did not go down the stairs, Orr said — not because they're incapable but because they stay in bed all day drinking wine.
'Kick me out of my own building'
Orr said he rejects the notion the fire alarm system isn't working properly.
"There are some errors on it, and there's some things that need to be fixed. But when the smoke alarms are set off, the bells ring," he said.
He also questioned the reasoning behind ordering the panel fixes.
"Just because a company decides not to support a panel anymore doesn't mean that you can't find someone to fix the panel," he said.
Orr said that Ontario's Fire Safety Commission — an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal that handles disputes around fire safety matters — had instructed the two sides to come to a resolution, but the fire department has declined to sit down with him to discuss the fire code.
"They're going to try and kick me out of my own building," he said.
'Laundry list' of prior concerns, fire chief says
Stephenson said he "thoroughly" disagrees with Orr's claim the fire department has acted inappropriately, and that everything they've done involves "safety and operation and care of the residents."
While the fire alarm issue is what prompted the evacuation order, there's a "laundry list" of concerns about the centre's operation that go back many years, Stephenson said.
For example, Stephenson said the vast majority of the building does not have sprinklers, so the fire service had ordered Orr's company, 2416300 Ontario Inc., to install some.
The building's owners have appealed those orders, requiring a decision by the Fire Safety Commission, he added.
Orr said that, according to his interpretation of the law, he doesn't need to install sprinklers, and that he's trying to keep the fees he charges residents affordable.
When asked by CBC News what the legal requirements are for sprinklers in older buildings, Stephenson said "it's always grey" and that's why the independent commission needs to weigh in.
Resident wary of being 'warehoused'
Residents who left the building are being housed in "a domicilery or hotel based upon their assessment and needs" and are being delivered meals, Stephenson said.
But six people — including two residents, plus members of the building ownership group — remained in the building as of Saturday morning, he said.
Orr said he has stayed behind.
Albert Gallagher, one of the two residents, said he won't move unless he's provided a two-bed apartment for himself, his wife, their dog and cat, plus a packer and mover to handle their possessions.
"You better bring the SWAT, just in case," Gallagher told a group that included at least one police officer in a video taken inside the centre on Friday that he shared with CBC News.
Albert Gallagher, a resident of Cornwall's The Care Centre, shared this video with CBC News. It shows him talking to authorities about what it would take for him to leave the centre, which the Cornwall Fire Service has ordered closed due to fire safety concerns. <a href="https://t.co/GtniGw9VM0">pic.twitter.com/GtniGw9VM0</a>—@gqinott
In an interview later on Friday, Gallagher said he's refusing to leave because he doesn't want to be "warehoused."
"They know our terms. They know our needs," he said.
Stephenson said the decision to clear the building was not taken lightly, and that the city is working with the Ontario Fire Marshal's office to discuss what to do next.
"To displace elderly and fragile residents is absolutely a last resort," he said. "And we did our absolute best to find accommodation, and everybody did get accommodation."