Merv Dutchak

Merv Dutchak

Fire safety top of mind at Saanich seniors’ homes

Fatal Quebec fire highlights importance of fire drills at seniors' residences in Saanich

While residents themselves are rarely aware of it, fire drills are an ongoing and critical safety component at seniors’ residences in Saanich.

With 225 beds, plus programs for mobility-challenged individuals aged 19 to 55, staff at Broadmead Care regularly run through drills to ensure they’re well prepared in the event of a fire.

“(Saanich Fire) come here on a pretty regular basis,” said Merv Dutchak, director of support services for Broadmead Care. “We make a point of ensuring that audible drills are conducted on a minimum quarterly basis and an evacuation drill is conducted on a minimum annual basis.

“Because we are long-term care, we have a lot of residents with dementia and (who are) non-ambulant. Drills can be a scary experience for them, so we do what we call silent drills.”

Staff carry out a scenario without ever sounding the alarm, but rehearse the response so it becomes routine.

“You have to be well prepared to respond quickly and we’re well geared to be able to do that,” Dutchak said.

Senior homes across the region are hearing from family members in the wake of a tragic seniors’ residence fire in Quebec last week that left 14 seniors dead, and another 18 missing and presumed dead. Only part of the three-storey wood building was equipped with sprinklers.

“We’ve had a lot of questions asking if we’re sprinklered, and frankly I’d be asking it if my parents were in a home,” said Karen Johnson-Lefsrud, executive director at Luther Court Society. “Thankfully we can say yes to that question. … People, once they hear that, they relax quite a bit.”

The shock of suddenly waking to a dark, smoke-filled room heavily impacts how people react when woken by fire alarms and acrid smoke, said Capt. Jerry Tomljenovic, Saanich Fire Department’s public education officer. It’s critical for everyone to have an escape plan, and practise it, he said. “How you react is based entirely on how you prepare for it.”

A home escape plan translates to a fire safety plan, one of many emergency plans in place at senior care homes. It governs the procedures followed in a fire, from alarms and handling of fire equipment, to drills and their frequency, Tomljenovic said.

Group B homes, classified as having residents who are incapable of evacuating without assistance, require monthly drills.

“We do have seven group B care homes in Saanich and they’re all sprinklered,” Tomljenovic said.

Luther Court, near Cedar Hill and Cedar Hill X roads, includes 60 complex care beds, 58 apartments and an adult day centre that sees 12 to 15 clients a day. It is among the 84 care homes licensed by Island Health, which requires fire safety plans for licencing.

“The regulations also require that employees be trained in the plan and they have a copy of the emergency plan displayed in the facility,” said Kim Bruce, regional manager, community care facilities licensing for Island Health. “Of course the facilities will also have contact with local fire departments.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said all care homes are built to B.C. Building Code standards, which includes having sprinklers.

“In fact all licensed residential care facilities built since 1996 have been built with sprinkler systems and most of the older residential care facilities have been retrofitted. This means that the majority of both publicly funded and private pay residential care facilities already have sprinkler systems in place,” the spokesperson said.

Broadmead Care also offered information on is safety protocols to reassure residents’ families this week, said Kathy Baan, director of development.

“Obviously the safety of our seniors is paramount, and the heart-wrenching event in Quebec is top of mind. That is something you never want to happen,” Baan said. “(We have) quite a comprehensive plan for the staff and everyone here is quite aware of the plan.”

Other small checks are in place, too. Staff examine electronics when residents moves in, and families are encouraged to purchase fire resistant clothing and blankets for their loved ones. Christmas lights are also limited to common areas.

“We’re quick to let them know when they’re bringing things into the building that are not fire safe,” Dutchak said. “We try and be flexible at times, but not so much when it comes to fire safety.”


Staff readiness

At Broadmead Care, staff learn proper carry techniques, one-man two-man, negotiating stairs with a chair and other emergency response tools through learning modules. Emergency plans cover fire, chemical spills, bomb threats and more.

“Each module might be 15 to 20 minutes,” said Merv Dutchak, director of support services. “A staff member can go online and watch a learning module at a time that works for them and a speed that works for them.”

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