The province will install fire-suppression sprinklers in 50 prioritized government-owned seniors lodges this year and another 50 over the two following years, Seniors Minister Lori Sigurdson vowed Tuesday.
The NDP government has allocated $30 million this year and another $30 million over the next five years to install sprinkler systems in government-owned seniors lodges and continuing-care facilities deemed at highest risk.
“We’re confident we’ll get it done,” Sigurdson said in an interview. “We want to move quickly on this. The safety of seniors is a priority for this government.”
She said many of the province’s 6,600 seniors lodges and continuing-care facilities were built in the 1960s and ’70s before the building code required the installation of sprinkler systems.
“We are in tough economic times, but I think this is a good indication of what is important to us,” Sigurdson said. “We are supporting seniors and making sure they are safe.”
Concerns were raised about the safety of seniors residences after a fire at a Quebec seniors lodge killed 32 elderly residents in 2014.
Sprinklers installed in the living units of seniors facilities help suppress fires and give seniors with mobility issues more time to evacuate.
Most of the 24,000 seniors housing units in Alberta also aren’t fully equipped with fire suppression sprinkler systems because they weren’t required under the building code until 1990.
While the provinces of Ontario and Quebec have made sprinklers mandatory in all seniors facilities — government and non-government — Alberta has made no move to require privately operated facilities built before 1990 to install them.
“We’re focused right now on ensuring we meet timelines to upgrade the identified facilities, but after that’s complete we’ll assess to see what next steps we need to take,” Sigurdson said.
Ministry spokesman Timothy Chu said the government is focusing on facilities deemed most in need based partly on the mobility of senior residents as well as the facility’s proximity to fire departments.
Chu said there have been many challenges in installing the sprinkler systems in older facilities in small communities.
There are no architectural drawings or floor plans for some buildings, and some facilities don’t have sufficient water pressure, he said.
“A lot of these facilities . . . have asbestos and lead in them, so contractors have to deal with that before being able to do a lot of these renovations,” he added.
The government has created a performance measure in its three-year ministry business plan that calls for 65 per cent of the 100 top-priority seniors lodges to be equipped with sprinkler systems by the end of this fiscal year, 80 per cent by the end of the following year and 100 per cent by 2018-19.
“When appropriate fire and safety mechanisms exist within facilities, residents’ safety and survival is much improved,” says the document.
Liberal Leader David Swann applauded the government’s commitment to protect seniors.
“I am very pleased they are moving ahead with it,” he said. “It’s an essential part of taking care of our seniors and it’s a government responsibility, especially in publicly funded homes, to make sure that those are in place as quickly as possible.”
PC Leader Ric McIver noted that his government launched the sprinkler installation program, but he said there’s an onus on the management and staff of the facilities to make sure seniors are safe.
“For the homes that are waiting for the fire suppression systems, I am hopeful that the management and staff there are prepared to assist seniors as required if something occurs before the systems are in place,” he said.
McIver said he hoped extra staff training and fire preparation is ongoing “because seniors in care deserve to be protected.”
The ministry business plan states that only 33 per cent of 37,000 units of provincial housing stock is in good condition, with 62 per cent in fair condition and five per cent in poor condition.
Sigurdson said the province is striving to address $1 billion in deferred maintenance in the housing stock, which she said was inherited from the previous government.
“Our government is working very hard to close that gap and make sure that Albertans have safe and affordable accommodation,” she said.