Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fire safety review overdue

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The province of Quebec should hold a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the fire in a seniors residence that killed 21 residents, with another 11 missing.

A Quebec official said it was too early to consider an inquiry because the cause of the blaze in the three-storey home in L'Isle-Verte has not been determined and police are still investigating.

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An inquiry, however, is necessary regardless of what investigators find.

The horrific blaze has raised too many questions about sprinklers, alarm systems, security guards, escape plans, prevention and a range of other issues.

The results of such an inquiry would be relevant to all Canadians who should also be questioning if their fire-safety rules are adequate, particularly since fire codes are a patchwork of provincial regulations based on the National Building Code of Canada. Some provinces have written their own fire codes based on the national standard, while others, such as Manitoba, have embraced the federal code, while adding their own regulations.

Some municipalities have made their own rules, notably Vancouver, which requires sprinklers in all new residential buildings, not just those with residents who are vulnerable. In several American states, sprinkler systems are mandatory in all new single-family homes.

A CBC investigation discovered more than half of 125 licensed personal care homes in Manitoba do not have full sprinkler systems; 37 had no sprinklers, while 55 had partial protection.

Like Quebec, new personal care homes or those that undergo extensive renovations must have sprinklers, but those built before 1998 are exempt.

Sprinkler systems are not guaranteed to save lives, but they could make a difference in some cases by reducing the severity of the fire long enough to give residents a chance to escape. The same is true of fire alarms and other systems.

The question, then, is what is the appropriate amount of safety? It's obviously impractical to retrofit every home in the country with an advanced sprinkler system, but what kind of structures should have them, regardless of their age?

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the question of fire safety has been neglected for too long.

"Although the number of fire fatalities continues to decline, Canada's fire death rate continues to be higher than the fire death rate in most comparable countries around the world, including nearly all the nations of Europe," the association said.

"Clearly, Canada is not as safe as we can be or as safe as we should be."

In Manitoba every year, several hundred people are injured in fires, including 22 people killed in 2011. The estimated value of loss was nearly $140 million.

Nearly every fire fatality in Canada occurs in a residential home of some type.

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The NFPA says it is ironic other property classes are required by law to be sprinklered, but not residential occupancies, where "we are at greatest risk from fire."

The association says evidence and statistics from around the world show home sprinkler systems reduce deaths and injuries caused by fire. They are even more valuable than smoke alarms alone, although alarms and sprinklers together provide the maximum safety.

But how much is society prepared to spend to save a life? How much is enough?

Well, if you ask the families of the victims in L'Isle-Verte the answer is that the system failed their loved ones. If it wasn't sprinklers, then maybe it was supervision, security or something else. Too many people died for it to be disregarded as just another accident.

An inquiry might not provide all the answers, but it's a good place to start a conversation that can benefit Canadians everywhere.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2014 A8

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