Improving the fire safety of multi-unit buildings is a vital undertaking — regardless who the occupants are. But when the residents are physically or cognitively impaired, employing best practices takes on a whole new level of importance.
Vulnerable occupancies — buildings that house elderly, disabled and other high-risk individuals — pose a special challenge for fire protection engineers. Residents may require assistance during an evacuation or have the inability to assess the proper course of action. Those factors make it harder to exit a burning building in a timely manner, at a time when every second matters.
Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal has become a leader in addressing vulnerable occupancies in recent years, enacting a number of additions to its fire code aimed at protecting this segment of the community.
Al Suleman, the office’s director of standards, training and public education, hopes those ambitious steps — the result of input from numerous stakeholders — can serve as a model for regulators in other parts of the country.
Suleman will gave a presentation regarding Ontario’s efforts during SFPE’s 2017 North America Conference & Expo. “Attendees left leaving the presentation with an appreciation of the fire risks for vulnerable occupancies and an understanding of how stakeholders with competing priorities can come together to support regulatory change,” he says.
Learning from tragedy
Ontario is certainly no stranger to the threat faced by vulnerable occupants, having endured multiple tragedies over the past two decades. These include a fire at the Rainbow Suites retirement community in Timmins that resulted in one fatality and a blaze at the Muskoka Heights Retirement Home in Orillia that claimed four residents. Neither facility had a sprinkler system that may have spared those lives.
In 2010, Ontario created an online consultation process in which members of the public and private sector offered ideas on what could be done to improve fire safety in senior housing.
Subsequently, Ontario’s government instructed the Fire Marshal to build on those recommendations by creating a technical advisory committee (TAC) comprised of municipal governments, facility operators, fire safety professionals, sprinkler manufacturers, and several government ministries.
The committee’s overarching goal was to gain input from each of these groups and create a consensus about what measures they could enact to avoid senior housing tragedies going forward. “Government, fire services, and industry collaboratively share the obligation to keep vulnerable occupants safe from fire,” Suleman says.
Among the committee’s proposals was to mandate the use of smoke alarms and automatic sprinklers in licensed retirement homes. Existing buildings, it determined, also needed to be retrofit with emergency lighting, voice communication equipment, and systems that allow staff to easily notify the local fire department of a suspected fire.
In addition, the TAC proposed more stringent inspection guidelines, including an annual examination at occupancies housing vulnerable residents, and the formation of a mandatory training program for building owners, operators, and supervisory staff.
The recommendations were officially incorporated into Ontario’s Fire Code on January 1, 2014, with a phased compliance schedule.
A collaborative process
Suleman asserts that an open dialogue between multiple parties helped make the changes possible, without placing an undue burden on owners and operators.
“These positive measures derived from the collaborative process between government, fire services, and industry demonstrate how it’s possible to achieve a balance between the competing priorities of economic impact and fire safety,” he says.
To date, those adaptations to the fire code appear to be making a positive impact. Since their enactment, none of the fires at facilities housing vulnerable occupancies have had fatalities.
While acknowledging the ongoing challenges of implementing these numerous changes, Suleman believes they’ve helped move the province in the right direction.
“Our work in the vulnerable occupancies sector is vital toward achieving and sustaining our province’s commitment to fire safety,” he says. “By enacting regulations that put prevention and fire safety first, Ontario’s death rate has been significantly reduced over the past several years.”
He’s hoping other regulators will use Ontario’s collaborative approach as a template for improving standards in their own communities.