EDITORIAL: Lessons must be learned from Quebec seniors' home tragedy

Carole Morris-Underhill
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At least 32 senior citizens are dead or presumed dead following a fire that ravaged a seniors' home in Quebec last week.

As of press time, volunteers are still combing through the remains of the Residence du Havre seniors’ home in L'Isle-Verte, but there's little hope any of the missing residents will be found alive.

In a town with a population of 1,500, the loss of life in such a dramatic — and devastating — fashion is inconsolable.

The fire ripped quickly through the three storey residence early in the morning Jan. 23, with the majority of the damage being done to the older portion of the building not equipped with sprinklers.

The seniors with severe mobility issues didn't stand a chance.

The stories coming out of L'Isle-Verte are heartbreaking. One man managed to reach his elderly mother on the third floor but due to thick smoke, had to turn around, leaving her behind. He will, no doubt, relive that day, and that decision, for the rest of his life. Residents and neighbours say they are haunted by the screams they heard that night coming from the home as flames and thick smoke enveloped it.

Across the country, citizens are expressing grief, anger and frustration over the situation. And rightly so. If more stringent, standardized safety guidelines were in place across the country, this tragedy probably could have been prevented, or at the very least, lessened in severity.

Considering the many long-term care facilities and senior residences in Canada, one thing is clear: we need to do better, as a country, at providing safe and affordable options to our aging population.

While each province has their own building and safety guidelines in place, it's time we demand a national standard be implemented. The safety of a seniors' home in British Columbia or Quebec should be no different than one in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.

Thankfully, most care facilities in Nova Scotia are equipped with a sprinkler system. (Those built prior to 1976 might not be.) However, there are seniors' homes in this province that are not required to have sprinklers because the residents are mobile and don't require care. That's disconcerting.

All multi-unit complexes should be required to have sprinkler systems, and older buildings that don't have them should be retrofitted immediately, not phased in over a period of time.

Emergency escape plans should be mandatory, clearly explained to both residents and staff, and tested at least annually, if not four times a year. (In Nova Scotia, regular fire drills are conducted.)

Older facilities should be invested in and upgraded, and it should be mandatory that new buildings are constructed using the most fire-resistant materials, and provide escape routes that are wheelchair accessible. Fire alarms and smoke detectors should be installed in every bedroom and common area.

It's not going to be a quick fix, and it's certainly not going to be a cheap one. However, taking responsibility is the proper thing to do. And if investing a few dollars now means avoiding just one more tragedy like the one in Quebec, then it's more than a worthwhile expenditure.

There's much we can — and indeed must — learn as a result of this tragedy. Although a formal inquiry will likely be conducted, the fact remains that there are residential homes at risk right now. We must push for immediate change. Our seniors deserve no less.

 

Geographic location: Quebec, L'Isle-Verte, Nova Scotia Canada British Columbia New Brunswick

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