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Inquest jury deliberating

GISELE WINTON SARVIS, Special to The Packet & Times

MIDHURST - The jury is out.

The three-man, two-woman jury at the coroner's inquest into a fatal 2009 fire at Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence will be deliberating today after being presented with passionate pleas and 36 recommendations crafted co-operatively by five lawyers.

Jurors have the "critical" task of weighing the evidence of 29 witnesses and 96 exhibits presented over the past six weeks at the Simcoe County Administration Centre.

The inquest was called following the deaths of Vera Blain, Genneth Dyment, Robert McLean and Hugh Fleming as a result of the fire Jan. 19, 2009. The two men died at the retirement home of smoke inhalation. The two women died later at Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital.

Jurors will be back as early as Friday morning with their recommendations - which will impact the entire province - for improved safety for vulnerable seniors living in retirement homes.

"We speak for the dead to protect the living," presiding coroner Dirk Huyer said Wednesday. "Make your recommendations targeted, focused, clear and practical. Recommendations can have far-reaching effects. Many organizations and ministries of government may be recipients of the recommendations. The better they are understood, the higher the chances of getting them implemented."

Mandatory retrofitted sprinklers is the No. 1 recommendation requested by the Orillia Fire Department.

"Sprinklers work," said John Saunders, lawyer for the Orillia Fire Department and the City of Orillia. "There is no evidence that says they do not work. There is no evidence of them failing. They go off when the temperature reaches a certain level and puts out the fire in that area and decreases smoke. Residents can get out and firefighters can do their work. It's a win-win."

Graham Webb, the lawyer representing the families of Blain and McLean and the Alzheimer's Society, said mandatory sprinkler systems are No. 1 on his list, too.

"A retirement home should never be a fire trap. Muskoka Heights was a fire trap," Webb said in his emotional appeal to the jurors, speaking personally about the four seniors who died.

There are more than 35,000 seniors living in retirement homes in Ontario and it's inconceivable to think there will never be another fire, he said.

"The (Ontario) Fire Code should be amended to require sprinklers without exception," Webb said.

Webb also wants to see the building code and fire code clearly classify all retirement homes as a care facility class B-3, never as residential class C, so more stringent fire-safety plan and fire-prevention tools are required to ensure the safety of seniors in the event of a fire.

Lawyer Sean McManus, representing the Professional Firefighters Associations, said four previous inquests have called for mandatory sprinklers, which hasn't materialized.

"We need action. The time for studies is over. That work has been done, done and redone. Your work should not be allowed to sit on a shelf. Your recommendations need to become a reality," McManus said.

His recommendation is that the coroner's office writes regular reports on the status of inquest recommendations. He said those reports should include what recommendations have been implemented and, in the event they are not acted on, the reasons for inaction.

Norm Feaver, lead lawyer for the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM), said that the OFM has been waiting for this inquest for more than three years.

He cautioned jurors that recommendations need to be "reasonable and practical."

"It's a struggle for people who make the decision to act on them if they have a significant price tag," he said.

Feaver said "evacuation is what you need to focus on" and noted mock evacuations and in-house staff fire-prevention and evacuation training using municipal fire departments is key to low-cost fire-safety measures.

"Focus on the areas where there are gaps. Muskoka Heights staff wasn't trained and the fire department didn't catch it," Feaver said.

He also suggested fire departments set up automatic aid, whereby, in the case of a serious emergency, neighbouring fire departments are automatically alerted and respond, increasing the firefighting response.

Coroner's counsel Bhavna Bhangu said jurors should take a "holistic" approach to recommendations and not just pick out a few items.

"I'm going to try to persuade you to accept 36 recommendations. We've spent hours putting together our collective response to the evidence," she said. "I completely support sprinklers, smoke alarms, staff training, a direct connection to the fire department and self-closing doors."

"It shouldn't be a choice anymore for owners of retirement homes," Bhangu added. "It's important to move forward one or two or three or four steps in fire safety for our seniors."

Muskoka Heights owner Dean Rushlow, who represented himself, has not been present at the inquest since the end of the second week.

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