March 1st, 2024

Decade after fatal fire, some Quebec seniors’ residences unable to install sprinklers

By Pierre Saint-Arnaud, The Canadian Press on January 20, 2024.

Fire engulfs a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., early Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. Ten years after 32 people died in a fire that ripped through a residential complex for seniors in rural Quebec, around a quarter of all private seniors' residences in the province are still struggling to comply with a requirement to install sprinkler systems. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frances Drouin

MONTREAL – Ten years after 32 people died in a fire that ripped through a residential complex for seniors in rural Quebec, around a quarter of all private seniors’ residences in the province are still struggling to comply with a requirement to install sprinkler systems.

The January 2014 fire at the Résidence du Havre in L’Isle-Verte, Que. – nearly 200 kilometres northeast of Quebec City – sent shock waves through the province. A subsequent investigation and 2015 report by the Quebec coroner’s office led the provincial government to mandate sprinklers in all seniors’ residences, with exceptions for institutions housing fewer than 10 people.

Now, time is running out for some residences to meet the requirement. In his report, Coroner Cyrille Delâge suggested giving residences five years to comply. The provincial government eventually extended the deadline to Dec. 2, 2024.

As of the end of last year, 353 of Quebec’s 1,413 private seniors’ residents had still not installed sprinklers, according to data shared with The Canadian Press by the office of the provincial minister responsible for seniors, Sonia Bélanger.

Those 353 complexes are disproportionately smaller in size. Though they represent one-fourth of all residences, they comprise just 4.5 per cent of existing seniors’ residence units.

One hundred eighty-four of them have fewer than ten units and could thus qualify for an exemption if they have met other fire safety requirements. The other 169 risk becoming non-compliant in December and losing their right to operate, says Hans Brouillette, public affairs director of the Regroupement québécois des résidences pour aînés, a non-profit organization that represents privately owned seniors residences in Quebec.

“The deadline is really coming too quickly now to hope that everyone will be compliant by then,” he warned in an interview.

The cost of sprinkler installation is the main barrier. Though the government has offered financial aid, those packages often underestimate the true cost of installation, especially in rural areas, where contractors may incur additional travel, accommodation and meal expenses, and where more work may be required to connect to municipal water networks, Brouillette explained.

“We’ve seen bids for $100,000, but the subsidy for such a connection is only $40,000,” he said. “Where is the missing $60,000 going to come from?”

Inflation, rising interest rates and high labour costs have compounded the problem in recent years. Insurance premiums have risen, too, and sprinkler installation increases them further due to the added risk of leaking pipes and water damage.

“The regulation, more than any other, has caused costs to jump, explode,” Brouillette continued. “These are sudden amounts of money that come along and completely break your business model and your ability to finance this work. So closures become inevitable, and certainly a majority of closures are attributable to this measure.”

In other industries, increased costs due to regulation change can be passed along to the consumer. But that’s not possible for Quebec seniors’ residences because of rent control regulations and seniors’ limited ability to pay, Brouillette explained. Smaller residences also see a greater financial burden because the cost of sprinkler installation is spread out over fewer units and banks might see insufficient revenue to approve loans.

Brouillette’s organization thinks Quebec should have fully funded sprinkler installation from the outset. “It’s too late now,” he said. “A thousand seniors residences have closed in the last 10 years, not all because of sprinklers, but it’s major.”

“We all agree that lives don’t have a price,” he continued. “But they do when it comes to measuring the ability to pay.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2024.

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