Although one resident remains hospitalized, the Jan. 26 fire at Caressant Care, Bonnie Place in St. Thomas is being called “a perfect case” where the sprinkler system worked, firefighters were on the scene within four minutes and staff and residents had participated in a practice fire drill less than three months previous.
The late-evening blaze sent seven people to hospital, including four residents, two staff and a firefighter. All have been released with the exception of one resident who remains in critical condition.
But, what if that blaze had, instead, broken out in either one of a pair of facilities that appear to have fallen through various cracks?
Neither Walnut Manor, owned by Niagara Supportive Living of Welland nor a Community Homes for Opportunity facility operated by Jim Akey – former owner of Gate House on Flora Street and Tara Hall in St. Thomas – are mandated to have sprinkler systems installed.
Both homes deal with some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, the former housing upward of a dozen residents and the latter situated on Alma Street after a fire forced a move from its previous location.
The Alma Street home is proving particularly frustrating for St. Thomas Chief Fire Prevention Officer Bill Todd.
The Flora Street home had been sprinklered, with funding assistance from the city.
Akey, however, is balking at having to install such a system in his new group home.
According to Todd, the owner argues this facility is not a care occupancy home, instead it is considered boarding and lodging, and if operated with under 10 beds does not require sprinklers.
“At two in the morning, would these people be able to get out of the home unassisted when a smoke alarm goes off?
“We’re arguing basically it is care occupancy,” asserts Todd, “and he (Akey) is trying to fight that. He has the backing of his association in Toronto (Ontario Homes for Special Needs Association).”
Todd has taken up the cause with the Elgin branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
“The CMHA has taken over for homes for special care so it is kind of in the title. So I’ve put it in their hands and spoke with their housing person (Christina MacEvoy) and said at two in the morning, would these people be able to get out of the home unassisted when a smoke alarm goes off?
“They said not a chance. So, it’s in your hands, they are your people. You supply the funding to this owner. You make the call. If more than 10 people reside there, and more than two require assistance to get out, you have to be a care occupancy home which requires sprinklers.”
Sadly, it appears to have become a numbers game with resident safety taking a back seat.
“The owner is trying to say everyone can get out on their own,” relates Todd. “He was licensed for 10 with a live-in staff, so now he says he is only going to take on nine clients and there will be no live-in staff, ‘so I don’t have to sprinkler.'”
Todd continues, “I threw it back at CMHA and said at the end of the day they are your people. You tell me that you think they are safe to get out of there.
“This (sprinkler regulation) was brought in to help them with their people and you’ve got an owner who doesn’t want to pay for sprinklers.”
Pushing Todd’s frustration level to the boiling point is this observation.
“At his last place on Flora the city had a grant program to help sprinkler buildings and he was the first person to put his hand up and say, ‘I’m a care occupancy (facility).'”
Speaking yesterday (Feb. 1) with MacEvoy, CMHA program manager housing support services, she points out “We’ve had many discussions with Bill Todd and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care who fund the program to determine whether it is a care occupancy (home). While his previous home had been sprinklered, but it wasn’t required. The city had given some funding for homeowners to get sprinklered.”
“That’s our concern and we wouldn’t want to continue to house anyone there who would be at risk.”
MacEvoy continues, “The most recent information I have is the fire department would have to classify the home. Because the number of beds is below 10, they (fire officials) cannot classify it as a care occupancy home legally.”
So, by operating with one less bed, Akey can run the home minus a sprinkler system.
Which still leaves unanswered the question of whether those residents could escape the home safely.
And MacEvoy – who was completely unaware of the Caressant Care fire – concedes it is a bit of a numbers game versus client safety.
“That’s our concern and we wouldn’t want to continue to house anyone there who would be at risk . . . The reason they are placed in those homes is around their mental health but we have to be careful we are not making the assumption because of that it means they cannot evacuate.”
Valid point Christina. But could they do it unassisted in the middle of the night in under three minutes? The time they likely would have to safely escape a blaze.
Even though some or all of the residents are CMHA clients, MacEvoy clearly tosses the ball back into the fire department’s court as far as time needed to evacuate.
“I hope the fire department has an answer for that if they are the ones that classify the homes. If there is nothing they can do then obviously we can’t enforce this (sprinkler system). We don’t have the authority to enforce this home to be sprinklered.”
So, who exactly does have the authority?
MacEvoy continually points to the fire department as the governing body, however if their authority is limited by what would appear to be arbitrary occupancy numbers established by another body, do you see what is happening here?
We’re stuck in neutral. A classic case of inertia.
“We’ve got a toolbox but unfortunately, you can only use a screwdriver.”
Is it going to take another fire which is not “a perfect case” scenario resulting in fatalities and a coroner’s inquest?
The bottom line: The Elgin Branch of the CMHA, with the blessing of the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, is assigning vulnerable individuals to a home that is not sprinklered, will have no staff in the premises overnight and whose owner lost his previous facility to a fire.
Unlike the Caressant Care incident, far from “the perfect case.”
What is the situation over at Walnut Manor and can the city play a role in this fire safety stalemate?
More to follow in Part 2 of this examination.
We’ll close out this segment on a note of exasperation from Todd.
“We can’t enforce sprinklers. We’ve got a toolbox but unfortunately, you can only use a screwdriver.”
LET’S GET ON WITH IT
Good news this week for the Kettle Creek Public School community, a Port Stanley school populated by many Sparta area youngsters.
The province has given the Thames Valley District School Board the green light to proceed with expansion and renovations at the school.
The former Port Stanley Public School inherited more than 230 students from Sparta Public School this past September when the latter was transformed into a French Immersion facility.
Opening the new school year over capacity at Kettle Creek resulted in considerable finger pointing between the board and MPP Jeff Yurek.
Matt Reid, TVDSB chairman at the time, accused the education ministry of bogging down the approval process and he specifically approached the Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP last fall to urge him to get the ball rolling.
Reid noted the school board was willing to spend over $1 million of its own money to begin improvements in Port Stanley.
We’re not the roadblock, shot back Yurek, who stressed any approval delays can be traced back to the school board.
In any event, the work at Kettle Creek Public School will entail an addition to house a new library; the creation of two new classrooms through retrofits; and general renovations to the building.
Breathing new life into a school that previously had been woefully under capacity. More background on the evolution of Kettle Creek Public School can be found in The Echo.
It’s good news for Port Stanley which is undergoing a housing boom, of sorts.
French Immersion students re-designated to Port Stanley
No portage for les voyageurs this year
POINT TO PONDER
Remember the days when St. Thomas Energy took care of traffic signal and street light maintenance in the city?
Now we are going to pay ERTH Holdings $232,000 annually for a three-year term to perform this service.
ERTH is owned by eight municipalities, including Central Elgin and Aylmer, and is based out of Ingersoll.
A utility with ties to our neighbours in Central Elgin and Aylmer will be undertaking maintenance once the domain of a St. Thomas-owned entity.
Guess the Entegrus utility merger didn’t benefit the city on this one.
FOR THE CALENDAR
Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek is hosting consultations in advance of the 2019 provincial budget. Three different sessions will be held this coming Friday, Feb. 8.
They begin in Dutton at the municipal council chambers, 199 Currie Road, from 10 to 11:30 a.m.
Next stop is in Dorchester in the council chambers at 4305 Hamilton Road from 1 to 2:30 p.m.
The consultation road tour wraps up in St. Thomas at Yurek’s constituency office in the CASO station from 3 to 5:30 p.m.
To book a presentation, call 519-631-0666.
EML MP Karen Vecchio will host a number of roundtable discussions Feb. 13 at the CASO station. They begin with small business owners from 9:30 to 11 a.m. followed by municipal leaders from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and then ag producers from 2 until 3:30 p.m. For more info, call Jill Ferguson at 519-637-2255.
A pet microchip clinic will be held Feb 17 at the Global Pet Food store, 900 Talbot Street in St. Thomas. Call the store at 519-207-3663 to register. Cats and dogs welcome, however, dogs must be on a leash and cats should be in carriers. Cost of the procedure is $35.
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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