Canada's Recent Senior Housing Tragedy Reminds Us of the Critical Importance of Fire Safety

Angie Szumlinski
February 10, 2014

As published on Provider Nation, the official blog of Provider Magazine, January 17, 2014

By Stan Szpytek, reposted with permission

Good afternoon, ProviderNation. 

While the heartbreaking details of a devastating fire that destroyed a seniors housing property continues to emerge from a small village in Quebec known as L’Isle-Verte, all long term care providers, as well as operators of independent seniors housing properties, must be reminded of the critical importance of fire safety in their communities. As of this writing, 10 bodies have been recovered, and 22 elderly residents remain missing. My review of numerous news reports regarding the fire indicate that many of the residents were unable to self-evacuate during the fast-moving fire that may have been intensified by the weather. Despite reports that a cigarette ignited the blaze, officials have not yet determined the cause, and rescue teams are using steam machines to melt massive amounts of ice that shrouded the fire scene as the search for victims goes on.

Fire tragedies are often one careless act or system failure away from occurring in any type of occupancy. The risk of fire in a seniors housing property or health care facility is exponentially increased by a wide variety of factors, ranging from Mother Nature to overloaded electrical systems, to failure to enforce smoking prohibitions inside a building when it may be too cold to smoke outside.

Here are some things to consider, particularly in reference to fire safety during extremely cold conditions:

  • Understand that elderly residents will sometimes use their stoves or ovens to provide supplemental heat in their apartments or living units during the winter season, especially during periods of extremely cold weather. Residents must be trained on the hazards associated with such actions to ensure that this practice does not occur in your community.


  • Electric space heaters are a common cause of fires and should not be allowed where prohibited by code, ordinances, or regulations. If space heaters are allowed to be used, residents and staff must be educated on the proper use of these potentially dangerous devices and must provide adequate clearance to prevent the ignition of a fire.


  • Other sources of supplemental heat like propane heaters produce carbon monoxide when not properly vented and place a facility at serious risk. Ensure that “homemade” provisions to supply additional heat are not used in your community, and be on the look-out for anything that looks out of the ordinary or not in compliance with safety codes, regulations, and common sense. If it looks unsafe, it probably is unsafe.


  • Candles cause fires when left unattended and are typically prohibited in health care and seniors housing properties. It is essential for the administration of every facility to vigorously enforce rules and best practices that prohibit the use of candles to help ensure safety.


  • Understand that residents may try to smoke inside of the building when conditions outside are treacherous during severe winter conditions. It is essential to set up safety and security protocols to monitor these types of situations closely to ensure that smoking does not occur inside buildings or in close proximity to the structure to prevent ignition of a fire. Ensure that smoking material is properly disposed of in approved containers outside of the building in designated smoking areas if smoking is allowed on campus.


  • Water-based fire suppression systems can freeze and malfunction during extreme temperatures. Maintenance teams should closely monitor all fire and life safety systems during periods of extreme weather to ensure they remain operational and do not fail. If a malfunction does occur, contingencies must be in place to provide supplemental protections or relocate patients or residents to a safe and compliant environment of care. An inoperable fire sprinkler system can be devastating if measures are not in place to immediately address problems when they occur.


  • Ensure that staff never utilize unsafe and unconventional methods of thawing or heating pipes during periods of severe weather when freezing of these systems may occur. Use of a propane torch, heat tape, electrical wiring, or other homemade devices can place a facility at serious risk of fire. Many fires have carelessly been started when the staff of a facility or even a homeowner of a single family residence used a propane torch to thaw pipes and subsequently burned the entire building to the ground.


  • All staff members need to be on the lookout for any type of hazardous act or condition that may occur within a building when extremely cold temperatures are present. Blocking ventilation systems, restricting make-up airflow, and other obstructions that are implemented to reduce drafts in the building can lead to a fire or oxygen-deprived environment. When gas-fueled heating equipment is installed in a building, carbon monoxide detectors should be present to monitor for the presence of this deadly, odorless gas.


  • Proactively work with your community’s first responders well in advance of any emergency that may occur in your facility or at your seniors housing property. Providers should actively collaborate with other “like” facilities and all emergency resources (fire, EMS, law enforcement, emergency management, etc.) to ensure the best possible response to a crisis or disaster.


  • Fire and disaster drills are an essential component of preparedness. Make sure that your staff and residents are ready to respond to all types of emergencies.

Undoubtedly, the tragedy in Canada will offer some very hard and revealing lessons on the destructive power of an uncontrolled fire in a seniors housing property. Providers of all types of senior services must be vigilant in their efforts to prevent fires from occurring and responding appropriately when a fire ignites. Fire and life safety should be at the top of every community’s list of priorities to help ensure a safe and secure environment of care.

Here are some resources that will be useful:

Fire Safety for Older Adults:

Let’s Retire Fire—A Fact Sheet for Older Americans:

NYC / FDNY—Fire Safety for Seniors:

Montgomery County—Safety Tips for Older Americans and the Disabled:

Stan Szpytek is president of Fire and Life Safety (FLS) and is the life safety/disaster planning consultant for the Arizona Health Care Association and California Association of Health Facilities (CAHF). Szpytek is a former deputy fire chief and fire marshal with more than 35 years of experience in life safety compliance and emergency preparedness. FLS provides life safety and disaster planning consultative services to healthcare and senior living providers around the nation. For more information, visit www.EMAllianceusa.comor email Szpytek at

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