Inside Queen's Park: Time to apply nanny-state habit to smoke alarms

Two things crossed my screen recently, and although they might seem unrelated at first glance, in reality they’re two sides of the same coin.

The second item was an announcement that Ontario’s seatbelt laws are 35 years old. Imagine that. I remember driving my mom’s 1969 Cutlass in an era when buckling up was optional and I confess to whining about “those stupid laws” back in 1976. Has it really been 35 years?

Of course, it’s a sensible law and one we would be all the poorer for without. They tell me a driver not wearing a seatbelt is 40 times more likely to die in a crash than someone properly restrained.

The Ontario Provincial Police and the Ministry of Transportation also say that in 2010, 89 people died in collisions partly because of not wearing seatbelts or at least not wearing them properly.

This year alone, seven people have died in collisions where seatbelt use was casual. Still, that’s better than last year at this time when we had 13 dead and 913 others injured under similar circumstances. This, incidentally, is why the OPP will be cracking down on seatbelt scofflaws this week.

We put airbags in vehicles and mandate their use because it makes sense. Just as we codify speed limits, we also enforce standards in buildings because we want those structures to be safe for occupants and passersby alike so that in the event of an earthquake or fire, the damage suffered is minimal and doesn’t cause a domino effect nearby.

Forgive the tour, but here’s where I’m going with this. Last month, there was a fire at a seniors’ residence in Timmins, Ont., that resulted in a death and several others going to hospital for treatment.

The tragedy here is that it may have been a needless death. As the National Fire Protection Association notes, the tragedy may not have happened if the home had had automatic sprinklers.

The fact is that there has never been a recorded fire fatality in multi-unit structures protected by automatic sprinklers.
This is an incredibly frustrating statistic for Tim Beckett, president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, whose organization has been leading the charge to get legislation enacted that would make it mandatory for all seniors’ homes to have automatic sprinklers.

Hamilton East-Stoney Creek MPP Paul Miller introduced bill 92 last year. It went to committee where it remains. Frankly, I think the chance of this lame-duck government passing legislation dwindles daily as its fixation on the Oct. 6 election grows. Beckett is optimistic nevertheless.

“They are in a consultative process looking at this in terms of all vulnerable residents in Ontario,” he says, noting that the definition of which structures would require automatic sprinklers has been expanded to include virtually any multi-unit building that cares for the infirm, people with mental challenges or seniors.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has the task of consulting the public, but there’s no timeline set.
“They say they are committed, and we have to believe that,” says Beckett.

He notes that part of the task involves educating owners and politicians alike about the benefits despite the cost.
“We recognize there is a cost involved,” he says. “But one of the myths is that it is prohibitively expensive, and that’s just not true.”

Nor is it true that sprinklers cause millions of dollars in water damage and are prone to being inadvertently triggered.
“Yes, it does happen, usually when someone knocks a sprinkler head off with a tow motor or something like that,” he says. “But I have a sprinkler head in my office here, and if it were to go off, it would just go off here. The office next door, the rest of the building would not be affected.”

And here’s the irony. Sprinklers, which in the not-too-distant future could end up as mandatory items in residential homes as well, are important today because of advances in design, materials, and the Ontario Building Code.
“The danger of fire today is not the structure,” says Beckett.

“It’s what’s in the rooms. We tend to have more synthetics, electronics with plastics, and once they go up, they really catch fire. With 20 minutes, you can be fully involved. They also throw off more toxic fumes and smoke, which is where the biggest danger is.”

Sprinklers stop that process, and while there will still be smoke and steam, they give residents time to get to safety.
This government has often been accused of running a nanny state by rushing to enact legislation without much research or logic simply because it saw a political opportunity.

One would hope that before it breathes its last gasp in power, it will leave an honest legacy in the form of sensible legislation that will save lives.

Ian Harvey has been a journalist for 34 years writing about a diverse range of issues including legal and political affairs. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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