Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Friday, January 24, 2014

Proactive Beats Reactive

"I waited to see people coming out of the residence. I said, 'Our house is going to be full, we can shelter them, keep them warm.' But we did not see a single person come out. We were wondering what was going on."
Francine Boucher, L'Isle-Verte, Quebec
Rescue personnel search through the icy rubble of a fire that destroyed a seniors' residence  in L'Isle-Verte, Quebec.

Rescue personnel search through the icy rubble of a fire that destroyed a seniors' residence in L'Isle-Verte, Quebec.      Ryan Remiorz/AP

Located on the St. Lawrence River, north-east of Quebec City, the village of 1,500 is facing a tragedy. In such a small place, there are many who have been personally affected; their father or mother, aunt or uncle, grandparent might have been one of the 52 elderly and often physically incapacitated people who had made their home at the residence. Twenty people were rescued, they happened to be in a newer part of the complex which had been fitted out with fire sprinklers.

There were no fire sprinklers in the original larger building that represented La Residence du Havre.

Fire engulfs a seniors residence early Thursday a L'Isle-Verte, Quebec -- Photo Frances Drouin/The Canadian Press

Fire engulfs a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., early Thursday, Jan.23, 2014. Many of the 30 people unaccounted for in a fatal fire in a seniors residence northeast of Quebec City had limited movement and were confined to wheelchairs and walkers, a local official said Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frances Drouin
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The fire broke out on the second floor of this three-story wooden building of fairly recent vintage, just after midnight, when there would have been fewer staff around on duty than are present during the day. All the residents were asleep. Of those sleeping elderly people, thirty are unaccounted for, while five have been found, dead.

Firefighters were on the scene ten minutes after receiving the emergency call. Ms. Boucher described witnessing one failed rescue before the arrival of the firefighters. An elderly woman had telephoned her son from the residence, informing him of her peril. "She went out on her little balcony with a blanket, he came right away with a ladder and put it up to the balcony, but he could not go up there. There was too much smoke and flames."

Chief of the Isle-Verte volunteer fire department explained that by the time his men arrived "It was completely ablaze". Sprinklers are mandatory in Quebec seniors' homes only where the occupants are not mobile. Fire Chief Yvan Charron explained that his volunteers were able to access the new wing built in 2002 and equipped with fire sprinklers, but not the larger structure built in 1997.

Yet within that 52-person occupancy home there were many who were not mobile, dependent on wheelchairs, many were ill, one person was diagnosed with Alzheimers and one person was said to be blind. The staff had received fire-safety training and exposure to evacuation procedures. But scant few were present that night to aid their elderly, incapacitated charges.

One young woman in the village was awakened by her employer at 4:30 in the morning, calling to ask her to open the LeBarillet restaurant down the road from the residence so firefighters could come in to warm up. "They said there was a fire at the Havre. I immediately thought of my grandparents", she said. Her 92-year-old grandfather and 90-year-old grandmother had moved into the residence only two months ago, and they had perished.

As the restaurant's short-order cook she paid homage to them by cooking for the rescuers. "My thoughts are really with them today", she said through tears, "We have really experienced a tragedy".

Another resident of the village, Bernardin Roussel lives at home with his wife of 53 years, but at age 75 he had thought about moving into the residence to join some of his friends and neighbours who lived at the Havre. "They found it to be really nice there", he said. "Madame Bertrand, Madame Fillion. They are people we all know in a little village like this. It's not the same as you guys in the city."

The private residence operators note on the website of the Residence du Havre that it had won two "golden roses" in 2004 and 2006 from the Federation de l'Age d'Or duQuebec "for the quality of the residence and the care offered." Recognition for "meeting the highest quality norms" was awarded to them as well from the Regroupement Quebecois des residences pour aines.

All operators of private retirement homes in the province must maintain detailed fire-plans. The homes must also keep fire extinguishers handy as well as "other fire-protection equipment", with no explicit requirement in the law for automatic sprinklers. In Quebec City, Social Solidarity Minister Agnes Maltais was of the opinion that this tragedy might just stimulate the government to review regulations relating to seniors' residences.

Doesn't it always take a tragedy for action to be taken to attempt to avoid future such tragedies? Why, one is given to wonder, would a three-story building be built entirely of wood to begin with? A highly flammable building with no need under law to equip it with fire sprinklers.

Insufficient staff on hand to deal with an emergency requiring evacuation of infirm elderly people does not inspire confidence, awards and care-recognition aside.

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