Politicians fiddle with laws as buildings burn

Christie Blatchford, Postmedia News

This article is reprinted with permission from Christie Blatchford.

Photograph by: Remi Senechal/AFP/Getty Images/File, Postmedia News
Photograph by: Remi Senechal/AFP/Getty Images/File, Postmedia News

Firefighters douse the burnt remains of a retirement home in L’Isle-Verte last week. In the U.S., the National Fire Protection Association has no record of a fire killing more than two people in a completely sprinklered public assembly, educational, institutional or residential building, Christie Blatchford writes.

The way Quebec politicians and others are carrying on, you’d think that the automatic sprinkler system was an untried, still slightly sketchy, cutting-edge technology and not one proven up the yingyang in the 142 years since it was invented.

“It’s not a simple problem,” Quebec Health Minister Rejean Hebert told reporters Monday at L’Isle-Verte. “If it would have been simple, it would have been done.”

If the answer was simple? It couldn’t be more simple: Order all care occupancies housing those incapable of self-preservation — vulnerable by dint of age or physical or mental disability — to be retrofitted with sprinklers.

Or take what Premier Pauline Marois, who this weekend visited the site of the horrific fire that killed 32 vulnerable old people last Thursday, said. “If only we were able to stop this from ever happening again, this type of thing.”

If only we were able to stop such fires?

Automatic sprinklers do precisely that. They stop fires in their tracks, contain them and contain the spread of poisonous deadly smoke.

For all the speculation now about whether the fire at La Residence du Havre was started by someone sneaking a smoke in his room, the truth is, if the joint had had automatic sprinklers, a dozen residents could have been puffing away in their beds and in the worst-case scenario, those dozen might be dead but no others.

Honest to Pete, if this is what passes for leadership in this country, we might as well take a page out of the book of Fitchville, Ohio, circa 1963.

In the early morning of Nov. 23 that year, fire destroyed the Golden Age Nursing Home in Fitchville, then an unincorporated township in a remote area about 80 kilometres west of Akron. The nearest fire department was in New London, about 10 kilometres away.

And, as the subsequent U.S. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) investigation later found, night telephone calls to the New London fire department “were received at the local funeral home.”

“The funeral home director would take the calls, start the siren and then contact the fire chief. He and another man on duty at the funeral home would then telephone the firefighters.”

You see?

In Fitchville, the powers-that-be at least had the honesty to do away with the middleman and had fires called in directly to the fellow who would all too soon be in charge — the guy who would embalm and lay out the dead.

Sixty-three of the home’s 84 aged residents were killed.

As the NFPA investigation notes, the state of Ohio had on the books sprinkler regulations that should have gone into effect two years earlier.

Alas, “the regulations were being held up by challenges, which claimed that the provisions would cause hardship to many facilities.”

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose: Thus Premier Marois says, well, first the police investigation must be done, and then the government committee that has been studying all this for a year must report, and then, she says, “If they recommend to us to change the rules, we will change the law.”

Let me be perfectly clear — there is nothing to study.

The first sprinklers, albeit not part of an automatic system, were installed at a theatre in London in 1812; the first automatic system was invented in 1872 by Philip Pratt. The first glass disc sprinkler, apparently not very different from the ones used now, was invented by Frederick Grinnell. The company that still bears his name is the largest fire-protection company in the world, and sprinklers are apparently still known in France as “les Grinnells.”

Sprinklers work. The NFPA has no record of a fire killing more than two people in a completely sprinklered public assembly, educational, institutional or residential building. Period.

As of Aug. 13, 2013, all nursing homes in the United States had to have installed automatic sprinklers if they wanted Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement. Seeing the writing on the wall, the nursing home industry in the U.S. had figured out that sprinklers were the best fire protection buy for the money.

In Canada, fire chiefs have been pushing sprinklers for decades.

“We have been talking about sprinklers for years,” Daniel Perron, president of the Quebec Fire Chiefs Association, said Monday in a telephone interview. “We are quite exasperated by the situation. …

“We have been asking (for sprinkler laws) for years, but our thinkers, our deciders, they go and find things that delay us,” he said, citing Quebec’s bizarre classification of the elderly as “autonomous” and “semi-autonomous” as one example.

While 37 of the residents at La Residence du Havre were older than 85, and while some had Alzheimer’s, some were blind and many in wheelchairs and on walkers, the home was cleared to care for “autonomous” and “semi-autonomous” old people.

“Even if you can use a fork and feed yourself,” Perron pointed out, “doesn’t mean you can jump out of your bed if there’s a fire at night.”

La Residence, a wooden building of three storeys, didn’t have to have a sprinkler system. Only homes four storeys and taller are so required.

Perron said that being a sprinkler advocate in Canada is “like being a priest: You preach and preach, but many people still go to hell.”

On a 2004 NFPA list of deadliest fires in “foreign facilities for older adults” since 1950, Canada ranked worst — the only country with four hugely lethal fires, one in Mississauga, Ont. (25 killed); one in Gander, N.L. (21 killed); and two in Quebec (40 dead in a Notre-Dame-du-Lac fire and 17 killed at a convalescent home in Pointe-aux-Trembles).

Japan and France had two big fires each; Jamaica, Finland and Costa Rica each had one. (The total is greater than 10 because there were several fires with identical numbers of fatalities.)

The fire at La Residence du Havre, where police believe 32 old people were killed, would vault L’Isle-Verte into fourth place, just behind Notre-Dame-du-Lac.

Golly, if only they could do something about it.

They should just hard-wire the 911 calls to the local funeral home, like they used to in Fitchville. There are a couple of nice maison funeraires in nearby Riviere-du-Loup.