Remi Senechal/AFP/Getty ImagesCanadian firefighters douse the burnt remains of a retirement home in L'Isle-Verte on Jan. 23, 2014.
As surely as dusk follows dawn, that’s how predictable was the terrible killer fire that destroyed La Residence du Havre in the village of L’Isle-Verte, just east of Riviere-du-Loup, and an unknown number of its frail and elderly residents.
Five people were confirmed dead, but as many as 30 residents remained unaccounted for and are considered missing, so the number of fatalities will rise.
The blaze broke out in the wee hours, about 12:30 a.m. Thursday; but of course it did. Fires at such places, whatever the preferred term — “care occupancies,” “vulnerable occupancies,” “private seniors’ residences of residential occupancy type,” “residences pour aines” as the French has it — don’t always happen at night, but often it seems they do, and it’s in these hours that they are at their most devastating.
And why is that?
It’s because that’s when such homes have the fewest staff on, that’s why.
If it wasn’t so completely tragic, it would be comic.
It’s as though the gods, in a particularly cruel moment, determined how best to go about killing the old and ill.
First, build buildings out of what firefighters call “combustible” materials, like wood. Then regulate the hell out of the industry with such a myriad of forms and paperwork that the regulation manages to be inept. (There’s a Byzantine patchwork of rules, building and fire codes and standards across the country, with a national code that appears to be implemented differently by different provinces and, of course, amended “in order to take into account the distinctiveness of the province of Quebec” as the Quebec building code notes.) This should ensure that nothing — oversight, regulation, enforcement — works very well. Allow for the fewest staff to be working during the most vulnerable times.
And, oh yes, never mind about automatic sprinklers, because, as the National Fire Protection Association in the United States says unequivocally, “NFPA has no record of a fire killing more than two people in a completely sprinklered public assembly, educational, institutional or residential building…” The gods don’t want that; can’t have something that just puts out fires on the spot, in the very place where they start.
And if there remain plenty of unanswered questions about the L’Isle-Verte fire, from Quebec government documents available online, some facts are known.
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian PressA crane knocks down a wall after a fatal fire destroyed a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.
La Residence du Havre had a capacity of 60 residents and at the time of its last certification in June of 2011, 52 people were living there, the majority of them — 37 — over the age of 85.
Sample schedules in the documents showed there were eight staff slated to be on during the day, three in the evenings and two at night.
Opened in 1997, the residence had a security call bell system; it was three storeys; it was made of combustible material (wood); it had one elevator; water temperature in the taps in the bathrooms was controlled; the units had smoke detectors — and the building was only partially sprinklered, a term that usually translates to there being sprinklers in common areas, but in this case, may have reflected a newer addition, which appeared to survive the blaze intact.
The facility was apparently well-regarded locally, considered one of the nicest places in the area. Pictures from its website show a modern-looking complex, with balconies overlooking lawns with garden statues, benches and swings and jolly-seeming residents everywhere.
A closer examination of the pictures, or the online promotional video, also shows many people in wheelchairs and others with walkers at hand. A local man who arrived quickly at the fire scene, trying in vain to rescue his aged mother, told reporters she was blind. A L’Isle-Verte town official, Ginette Caron, told The Canadian Press most of the residents had limited movement; only five, she said, were fully “autonomous.” Some had Alzheimer’s.
So, while it is in the detail yet to come that the ghastly story of L’Isle-Verte will be told, the bigger picture is crystal clear.
The elderly in these homes are sitting ducks in a fire. The regulatory system is a mess. The lessons are well known. Canada has a long and well-documented history of fatal fires in nursing and seniors’ homes. In Ontario, coroner’s juries began calling for mandatory sprinklers more than three decades ago. Quebec has her own rich history of fires, eight since 1985 in the Montreal area alone.
One, at the Villa Ste. Genevieve on the West Island on Aug. 31, 1996, killed eight people. Stunningly, that fire started in daylight, when there were eight staff on taking care of 41 residents; it should have been a lucky break.
Frances Drouin/The Canadian PressFire engulfs a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., early Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.
Alas, as emerged later at the inquest, not only were there no sprinklers in the home, but also that staff hadn’t conducted fire drills — you know, for fear of traumatizing the old people in their wheelchairs. Presumably, no one had pointed out to staff that the drills were for them, so that they would know what to do. At that fire, when firefighters arrived, no one could even tell them how many residents were left in the building.
The NFPA sent an investigator to have a look at the Ste. Genevieve fire; his 43-page report is a revolting indictment of what happened at that home.
In the U.S., that nation to which Canadians love feeling superior, all federal care homes are now required to have automatic sprinklers.
In Canada, only Ontario has comparable rules. Premier Kathleen Wynne and Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur, to their great credit, last year made sprinklers mandatory in the vast majority of retirement and nursing homes in the province — even the older facilities — by Jan. 1, 2019.
As well, the changes require fire departments to maintain a registry of such “vulnerable occupancies” in their area, and require fire departments to conduct annual inspections that must include, imagine that, a fire drill.
It’s not merely time for Ottawa to force national standards of the same ilk upon the other provinces; we’re in overtime.