Part 1 of this story can be found here.
City Scope has spent almost five years documenting the shortcomings at Walnut Manor in St. Thomas, operated by Niagara Supportive Living of Welland.
From meals described as appalling to bare bones maintenance and housekeeping to, most recently, an infestation of bed bugs.
Now you can add owner Vishal Chityal’s refusal to add a sprinkler system to the ageing facility which has housed upward of a dozen residents at any one time.
In the second part of our examination into fire safety at facilities housing the city’s most vulnerable individuals, we talk with St. Thomas Chief Fire Prevention Officer Bill Todd about Walnut Manor and Elizabeth Sebestyen, St. Thomas-Elgin Social Services director, about the options available for the city to protect residents of these unsprinklered group homes.
Walnut Manor has been referenced dozens of times in this corner since 2014 when its kitchen was closed down by the health unit for a period of three days in June of that year for various infractions.
The residence does not get funding as a home for special care. Niagara Supportive Living classifies it as a boarding and lodging facility.
As to fire regulations, Todd stressed, “it kind of falls through the cracks a little.”
As such, it is not required to install a sprinkler system.
All Todd can do at this stage is ensure minimum standards are maintained.
“We went in and did an inspection there to ensure their fire alarm system is in order and fire separations are in place. It’s all we could do as a boarding and lodging facility but it isn’t sprinklered. I can’t get to them (the owners). They’re trying to save a buck.”
And, not necessarily guarantee lives are saved in the event of a fire.
Todd ensures there are working smoke alarms in bedrooms, there are fire-rated doors and stairwells and fire extinguishers available.
“We went in and inspected them for that and a fire safety plan and they are doing all of that because if they don’t we can write an order against them. But we can’t enforce sprinklers.”
What concerns Todd is “They are the vulnerable occupants, they are the ones who need help.”
In the meantime, the fire department can only carry out annual inspections and act on any complaints.
What role can the city play to ensure those who call these residences home will be able to safely exit the facilities in the middle of the night in the event of a fire?
Will the near miss at Caressant Care on Bonnie Place hasten the city’s move to bring in minimum standards for boarding and lodging units?
“That’s part of what we’re looking at,” stressed Sebestyen, “the whole revision of the standards of care, which I’ve got just about done, and then it’ll be passed by CMHA (the Elgin branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association) so we can harmonize our standards.”
The next step would be, according to Sebestyen, the possibility of the city drafting licensing regulations.
“In the absence of any provincial standards, you know, we can develop our own (regulations) locally. And that would then include some licensing around those standards. So there would be some compliance that way, that’s what we’re looking at going forward.”
In June of last year, a report from Tim Welch Consulting out of Cambridge – which undertook the city’s 10-year housing and homelessness plan – was presented to city council with a section dealing with informal residential care facilities (RCF) like Walnut Manor.
These homes “provide supportive housing to non-senior individuals who require assistance for daily activities due to physical disabilities, mental health and addictions challenges,” as defined in the Welch report.
“Level of supports varies depending on individual need but are most commonly in the form of meals, administration of medicine, bathing, supervision etc.,” the report continued.
In the report to council, it was recommended the city create a bylaw to license care facilities and beds not licensed by the province “To help protect the health and well-being of RCF tenants.”
“We’d have to look into how far we can go with our standards. We can’t override provincial law. With Walnut Manor, does it meet the definition that would require a sprinkler?”
Sebestyen confirmed the city is still pursuing that recommendation.
“And working out all of the logistics around how that would work.”
Could the city initiate a fire sprinkler regulation for residential care facilities?
Likely not, according to Sebestyen.
“That’s something that’s up to the fire department, it’s part of the fire code and we would have to leave that up to them but we would want them all to have a fire safety plan for sure. And work with the fire department on developing that and that would include regular fire drills and then an evacuation site.”
Sebestyen continued, “We’d have to look into how far we can go with our standards. We can’t override provincial law. With Walnut Manor, does it meet the definition that would require a sprinkler?”
The city did make funding available for sprinkler systems in these two facilities and owner Jim Akey did take advantage of that for his Flora Street home.
He has not requested financial assistance for his new Alma Street residence.
“It’s still sitting here,” noted Sebestyen, “and he (Akey) knows it’s available if he needs it. We left it with him.”
Sebestyen is near completing a draft version of the revised standards of care which will then be forwarded to the CMHA in St. Thomas.
“It’s something we’re doing carefully and making sure there are no gaps. The big change was the way the province changed the homes for special care system, and now it’s local.
“Before that, they were provincial standards so we can create local ones and harmonize them in that way. So I think it’s a good opportunity but we don’t want to have to redo it all over in another year.”
In the meantime, will the vulnerable residents of these two homes be afforded “a perfect case” scenario should a blaze threaten their lives at three in the morning?
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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