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Protecting Canada's Vulnerable
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Protecting Canada's Vulnerable

By Lui Tai, P. Eng., and Anthony Fallone | Fire Protection Engineering

Canada has a rapidly growing, aging population. According to CARP, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization advocating for seniors in Canada, in 2011, 4.3 million seniors aged 65 and over resided in Canada,1 Out of this vast number, about 8% live in a collective home such as a retirement residence or nursing home.2

This article will focus on the seemingly small percentage of seniors (estimated at 393,150 in 2011) living in collective homes. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which surveyed more than 200,000 seniors living in 2,586 senior residences and more than 110,000 seniors living in 1,343 long-term care facilities, one of the most important concerns for the residents and family alike is the safety of the seniors.3

Most seniors’ mobility will slow with age, with some depending on mobility devices such as wheelchairs or walkers for their daily lives. In the unlikely but unfortunate case when a fire breaks out in a collective home, controlling the spread of the fire becomes critical to these vulnerable seniors. Automatic sprinklers have been shown to be an effective tool in controlling the spread of fire, which allows staff the opportunity to assist residents to safety. Evacuation capabilities of care occupancies can be defined as a function of both the residents’ capability to evacuate and the staff’s ability to assist in the evacuation. "Prompt Evacuation” is where all occupants, residents and staff from a fire compartment are evacuated within three minutes. "Slow Evacuation” is where the evacuation takes longer than three minutes but not more than 13 minutes. "Impractical Evacuation” would be where the evacuation time exceeds 13 minutes.4 In a non-sprinklered building, fire officials often require a "prompt evacuation” for all occupants, whereas in a sprinklered building, authorities would allow "slow evacuation” to take place since the automatic sprinklers are expected to control the fire spread.

In Ontario alone, 46 fire-related casualties have occurred in senior facilities since 1980. According to the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners (CCFM/FC), risk of fire-related fatalities for seniors increases drastically as compared to the rest of the population, principally because of the seniors’ mobility, mental disability and physical limitations. According to statistics published by CCFM/FC, the risk of fire-related fatalities for seniors 75 and above is 250% higher compared to the rest of the population. This risk further increases to 500% higher for seniors aged 90 and above.

However, the current codes in most provinces in Canada do not require homes built prior to 1997 to be retrofitted with automatic sprinklers. (Ontario passed a regulation to require mandatory sprinklers in all senior facilities in May 2013.) Although many agree sprinklers are a good idea, making the installation of sprinklers mandatory is difficult because a substantial amount of money would be required in a retrofit installation.


A few years ago, one of the premier senior facilities operators in Canada made the decision to voluntarily add sprinklers to all senior residences in its portfolio.

To ensure the project was completed to the highest standard in the industry and consistent across its 80 buildings, Revera retained a team of experts in the field of fire protection engineering and project management to oversee the project. The project team surveyed each building, put together site-specific performance specifications and tender documents, and in the process, mobilized a large number of fire protection contractors in the country over the project’s two-year duration. The team also conducted periodic quality assurance reviews on-site, provided technical support for unforeseen site conditions, and worked with site staff and contractors to ensure minimum disruption to occupants during the construction phase. By the end of 2012, this colossal undertaking was completed within a stringent timeline and budget.


From the start of the project, it was decided that a design model was required for the entire portfolio. It is based on:

  • NFPA 13, 2007 Edition: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems
  • NFPA 13R, 2007 Edition : Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Residential Occupancies up to and Including Four Stories in Height and
  • FM Global (FM) standards

The classification of the building largely depends on the use of the building. The method in which the Canadian building code classifies a building differs from that of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and FM Global.

In the National Building Code of Canada (NBC) and Ontario Building Code (OBC), a Group C "Residential Occupancy” represents the use of a building or part of a building by persons for whom sleeping accommodation is provided but who are not harbored or detained there to receive medical care or treatment or who are not involuntarily detained. The OBC classifies a building as a Group B, Division 2, "Care and Treatment occupancy” as an occupancy in which persons receive special care and treatment. The third focus occupancy type in the building code is major occupancy type B-3, "Residential Care.” This was introduced in the 2005 edition of the NBC, and is adopted in some provincial building codes. It is defined as an occupancy in which persons receive special or supervisory care because of cognitive or physical limitations, but does not include a dwelling unit.

NFPA 13’s occupancy classification is generally applied to a building or portions of a building based on its normal use. For a senior care facility, most of the building would fall into Light Hazard occupancy, with some service rooms or parking areas classified as Ordinary Hazard Group 1 or Group 2 occupancies. FM also has different classifications. FM classification HC-1 is considered similar to NFPA Light Hazard, and FM HC-2 is considered similar to NFPA Ordinary Hazard 1. Classifications provided in NFPA and FM relate to sprinkler installation and their required water supplies, and differ from building code classifications.

A "hybrid” standard was negotiated with the owner and its insurance carrier, FM Global, which included the use of some features not recognized by FM (e.g., attictype sprinklers), but at the same time the system design which provided more than the minimum NFPA requirements (e.g., residential sprinklers where not permitted). This hybrid standard was accepted by all parties and used on all buildings in this project.


While NFPA 13R allows attic spaces and open canopies to be unprotected by sprinklers, NFPA 13 requires that all attic spaces and porches, balconies, and canopies constructed of combustible construction be fully protected. The exemption would only apply in NFPA 13 to noncombustible or limited combustible attics and canopies. The hybrid standard required sprinklers in all attic spaces in buildings of combustible construction.

When an attic is required to be protected, NFPA 13 allows special application attic sprinklers to be used, but attictype sprinklers were not recognized by FM. The use of attic sprinklers saves time and money, as a pitched roof attic can be protected with a single branch line of back-toback sprinklers installed near the peak. In the traditional method, FM requires the attic to be protected with branch lines spaced and installed to cover every square inch in the attic space. The hybrid standard allows the use of attic-type sprinklers.

Under NFPA 13R, washrooms less than 5.1 m2 (55 sq. ft.) and closets less than 2.2 m2 (24 sq. ft.) located inside a suite can be exempted from sprinklers. In NFPA 13-2007, this exemption can only be applied to existing buildings of residential board and care occupancies, provided certain conditions are met in an egress study as defined by NFPA 101. The construction of the washroom and closet with a minimum fire-resistance rating also plays a role in this determination. In the recent editions of NFPA 13, this exemption was moved into the annex (appendix), which does not form part of the standard. FM also does not permit this exemption. The hybrid standard allows for this exemption.

In NFPA 13R, residential sprinkler design for hydraulic calculations is permitted. This typically requires all sprinklers within a room or compartment (up to a maximum of four sprinklers) to be included in the calculations. In NFPA 13, residential sprinklers can only be used in buildings classified as residential use, but the design must conform to the minimum design area. The hybrid standard does not allow the use of residential sprinklers.


In addition to the design of the sprinkler system, the following design issues were considered for each building:

Municipal Water Supplies. Are there adequate water supplies from the municipality? Do we need an on-site water tank or reservoir to satisfy the demand?

Fire Pumps. Does it make sense to increase the main size to try to eliminate the fire pump? If a fire pump is required to provide the required water supply, is an emergency generator required by the local building code? If a generator is required, do we size it to back up the pump only or other emergency loads as well?

Impact on Fire Alarm System. Is the existing fire alarm system in the building capable of being expanded to handle the electrical supervision of the new sprinkler system? Can some of the existing thermal sensors in the building be removed as the area is now protected by sprinklers?


The use of CPVC pipe simplifies the installation process. However, a number of common "lessons learned” issues must be closely monitored during the installation process.

CPVC pipes can be easily cut to length, and assembled with CPVC "glue.” However, this glue is, in fact, a solvent. Historically, application of too much solvent was linked to premature failure of the CPVC pipe in a number of installations. As a result, the manufacturer’s installation guide clearly stipulates that "pooling” of the adhesive is not permitted. The pooled solvent will skin over, but the solvent inside will continue to deteriorate the pipe, causing weak spots in the pipe to crack under the normal operating pressure of the sprinkler system. To prevent this from happening, quality assurance must begin at the very start of a project, with confirmation of qualified training by all installers, and on-site spot checks at randomly selected joints by a third party consultant.

It is almost natural instinct for an installer to pre-assemble the sprinklers to a section of pipe and then attach the pipe to the sprinkler lines. This would avoid twisted or misaligned sprinklers. However, this procedure is commonly known as "pre-fab,” and the sprinkler and CPVC pipe manufacturers specifically prohibit this practice. The rationale is that the pre-fabricated pipe with the sprinkler may be handled before the adhesive is fully cured. This may cause the adhesive to drip into the sprinkler, and permanently seal it from the inside, rendering it ineffective in case of a fire. To discourage this practice, a third party consultant should request randomly selected sprinklers be taken down and checked inside for possible sealing and debris.


The installation of sprinkler protection in operating residences and homes creates a set of unique considerations for contractors that requires careful planning and much communication in order to complete projects successfully.

One of the first steps in the planning process should be to determine whether hazardous materials (e.g., asbestos or lead paints) in the building require special attention if disturbed during the project. This can be done by retaining a qualified environmental consulting firm that can perform a designated substance survey to evaluate materials that may require caution and special methods for handling if disturbed during the project.

The storage of materials, tools, and parking for trades should also be carefully coordinated. At the same time, owners need to be mindful of other projects that may be occurring within the building, such as suite renovations, common area painting, flooring replacements, etc., that are being carried out by parties outside of those installing sprinklers. In Ontario, Canada, the practice of having multiple trades retained by the owner completing various projects may cause the owner to become the "constructor” as defined by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. This significantly increases the liability associated with the work being carried out and should be considered with all parties involved prior to beginning the project.

Protection of property and resident security and safety are key factors to consider in the early planning stages. It is important to ensure that procedures are in place for door control and access, resident notification and protection of property in order to avoid the potential risk of resident elopement, and injury or damage to personal property. The continued use of living spaces makes working in dining areas and the kitchen, along with main gathering areas significantly challenging. Constant communication with management and residents will help ensure that inconveniences are kept to a minimum and help ensure the overall project is successfully performed. Quite often, these areas can be worked on after residents go to bed to minimize complex phasing or relocation strategies.

Lui Tai is with Aon Fire Protection Engineering. Anthony Fallone is with Revera Inc.


  1. Canada’s aging population fuels retirement home boom: Census 2011,
  2. Fire Losses in Canada, Year 2007 and Selected Years, Council of Canadian Fire
    Marshals and Fire Commissioners.
  3. Seniors’ Housing Report 2011, Ontario, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
  4. NFPA 101, Life Safety Code Handbook, 2012 edition. NFPA, Quincy, MA.

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