TORONTO — Small retirement homes that can't afford to install automatic fire sprinklers, mostly in rural Ontario, can now apply for provincial government funding to get the life-saving systems in place before new fire code rules that were prompted by a number of deadly fires go into effect.
The Liberal government pledged $20 million on Wednesday to help small homes with under 49 beds and homes in rural communities overhaul their sprinkler systems before the Jan. 1, 2019 deadline.
In 2014, Ontario became the first province to make sprinkler retrofits mandatory in licensed retirement homes — a move that followed a coroner's inquest into a fatal 2009 blaze at an Orillia, Ont., retirement home that did not have sprinklers.
The coroner's report called for retroactive installation of sprinkler systems in vulnerable occupancies like retirement homes. Before that, only facilities built after 1998 were required to have sprinklers.
But that move worried some operators in the industry who voiced concern that they might not be able to afford the upgrades, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Minister of Seniors Affairs Dipika Damerla, who made the funding announcement, said that after consultations with small and rural home operators, it was clear some were struggling with the costs to upgrade.
"We've given the industry some time to phase this in," she said. "Some homes are able to financially manage those costs. With some homes it became apparent cost-sharing would be the right model."
In all, the government says that 20 per cent of Ontario's retirement homes — about 150 of 730 licensed retirement homes — do not yet have full automatic sprinkler systems.
"The end goal is the safety of our seniors," Damerla said. "What we wanted to make sure was that by Jan. 1, 2019 every home does have a sprinkler."
Forty-eight people have died in retirement home fires in Ontario between 1980 and 2013.
Laurie Johnston, CEO of the Ontario Retirement Communities Association, said that group has been working with the government since 2012 to ensure sprinklers were upgraded in every home across the province. The cost of the upgrades ranges from $100,000 to $300,000, she said.
"Right from the get-go we knew that there would be certain operators that would have difficulty in fulfilling that requirement," she said.
Johnston said this program will help operators in small towns where the homes are often an important part of the community.
"When you think about small towns in rural Ontario, the importance of having a residence for seniors, even if it's only 10 suites, to that community it's a very critical piece," she said. "Otherwise, seniors would have to move to another town."
NDP legislator Paul Miller, who has been pushing for tougher regulations around fire safety in retirement homes, said he would have liked to have seen compliance come faster in the sector. He's also skeptical about how the fire code rules will be enforced in 2019 to ensure all of the small home operators are compliant with the new rules.
"They've had half a decade to get this right," Miller said. "It's just too long. My opinion is that no retirement home, regardless of the size or geographic location, should be without proper fire protection. It's our parents, our grandparents, we have to do this right."
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press