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Zoning confusion may have played role in fire


MIDHURST - When is a retirement home a residence for independent seniors and when is it a place that offers specialized care?

The answer to that question is as clear as the black smoke firefighters fought through to evacuate residents of the Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence back in January, 2009.

The fire resulted in the deaths of four residents; six more were critically injured. An inquest examining those deaths - with the goal of making recommendations to prevent similar deaths - is taking place at the Simcoe County Administration Centre.

Muskoka Heights was zoned as a 'C' class building, otherwise known as independent living residential. Lawyers argued that the seniors' home was truly a 'B-3' class building, the designation for a care facility.

The significance of the designation is that the fire safety regulations between the two are substantially different. A 'B-3' zoned building requires a different fire-safety plan, more supervisory staff, more fire prevention training for staff and fire separation areas of the building.

"Today, I would consider moving it to a care classification 'B-3' facility," said Orillia fire prevention inspector Dave Baker, who was on the witness stand for the majority of the day Friday, followed by his boss, Paul Barritt.

The problem is discrepancies in zoning definitions between the Building Code, the Fire Code and documents from the Office of the Fire Marshal. In addition, those definitions have changed over time.

Lawyer Norm Feaver, representing the Office of the Fire Marshal, exposed a discrepancy in zoning of Muskoka Heights where Orillia Fire Department documents had it zoned as 'C' while the Orillia Building Department referred to it, in at least one document, as 'B-3.'

"How many retirement homes in Orillia are classifed as 'C' now?" asked Feaver.

"None," replied Baker.

"And at the time of the fire?" Feaver asked.

"Several," Baker responded.

Feaver asked Baker that if the designation changed from "C" to "B" if that was something that the fire inspectors would want to know.

"Definitely," replied Baker.

The Ontario Fire Code changed in 2007, bringing the terms "care occupancy" into the B-3 defintition. Feaver wanted to know if that should have changed the zoning of Muskoka Heights.

"I would still classify it as a "C" occupancy," said Baker, who added that the wording of that definition hadn't changed from the code update made in 1997.

"Seeing people with walkers in the home and you still see it as a "C"? Feaver asked.

"Yes," said Baker, who understood that if people were free to come and go, unlike a nursing home, that it was zoned as "C".

Lawyer Graham Webb said the zoning of Muskoka Heights as a "C" class "was problematic from a fire safety point of view."

"I viewed it a C in 2007," said Baker. "Using the tools we have now, I would see it as a B-3" Baker said.

Class "C" includes places such as homes, apartments, group homes, residential camps, motels and shelters. Class "B" includes places such as nursing homes and psychiatric facilities. Class "A" includes places such as arena and theatres.

Back in 2004 when Muskoka Heights opened, fire inspector Barritt visited the facility and after consultation with the chief building official agreed it was a group "C," Barritt said.

"They (the residents) are free to come and go. At that time, there was no care element mentioned," Barritt said.

"Today, I would look at it in a different light. This is an occupancy that can change in a short period of time," Barritt said.

Since the fire in 2009, the Orillia Fire Department has implemented 14 new guidelines that have made the department a model in the province, said Barritt.

All retirement homes and nursing homes in Orillia now have sprinkler systems, even the older ones that don't require it by law.

The Orillia Fire Department is only one of three in the province to perform mock evacuations at seniors' homes. The evacuations use a minimum of staff to either evacuate residents out of the building or move them into a safe place in the building. Overseen by supervisory staff and fire prevention officers, mock fires highlight weak areas immediately.

Having all nine Orillia seniors' homes in compliance with fire safety rules is especially important because Orillia has an aging population and more people are moving into care facilities, said Barritt.

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