Geri and Peter Crawshaw thought they had picked out a great retirement home in Orillia, Ont., for Peter’s aging mom Betty — until a fire broke out last year and she suffered major smoke inhalation. Four other residents died.

 

What they learned too late was the home wasn’t equipped with sprinklers — a device firefighters say is key to controlling not just flames, but smoke. Smoke is what kills most people in a fire.

 

“I never gave it a thought. I never looked up,” said Geri Crawshaw.

 

And who would? But in a national survey of older nursing homes and retirement homes, CBC Marketplace discovered a patchwork of regulations when it comes to sprinklers in older homes, leaving tens of thousands of seniors with no protection.

 

In Ontario, three deadly fires have led to three coroner’s inquests, all calling for sprinklers to be installed retroactively in long-term care homes. Three times, those calls have been ignored by the Ontario government. Newly built homes must have sprinklers, but not older ones.


But sprinklers are just one thing to look for if you’re considering putting a loved one in a long-term care home. We’ve put together some tips to help you navigate the waters.


Visit in person. Be sure to visit the home and talk to people who live there, or who have family in the home. Do more than one tour and show up unannounced. Ask to see different floors in a home, including any locked areas. And visit at different times of day, including during meals, and at night.


Check compliance reports. Your province may have reports online for long-term care homes that will tell you about potential problems.


Ask about staffing levels. What’s the staff-to-resident ratio? Does it change at night? Ask to see what the fire evacuation plan is overnight.


Talk to people. If the home has a family council, talk to the people who sit on the board.
Look up. If the home doesn’t have sprinklers, ask why not and whether they might be installed soon. Ontario fire chiefs — and their counterparts in other provinces — have been calling for older homes to be retroactively fitted for sprinklers for years. Ask your elected politicians why that hasn’t happened.


Tonight on CBC Television at 8:30, watch what happens when Marketplace sets two rooms on fire — one equipped with a sprinkler, the other without.



– Erica Johnson is a journalist and co-host of CBC News: Marketplace, Canada's award-winning consumer affairs show. CBC News: Marketplace airs each Friday night at 8:30 p.m. on CBC Television.