In a parliamentary system most legislation is introduced by the Government.
There are opportunities for private members to sponsor bills but many obstacles
stand in the way. Great perseverance and energy are required by a private
member who hopes to see his or her legislation enshrined in law. This article
examines the work of one Members attempt to make the installation of residential
fire sprinkler systems mandatory in newly constructed homes.
My interest in making residential sprinklers mandatory in new home construction
began during my first term on municipal council. While on Council I worked
with a Fire Prevention officer to try to make group home and lodging house
operators comply with the Fire Code and put together basic safety plans
which would protect their occupants. The people who were living in these
homes were autistic, had mental health challenges and they were terminally
ill. In the event of fire, many disabled individuals could not exit the
homes in which they were living, without assistance. We were trying to
get the group home operators to put in fire doors, to assist in delaying
a fire in a room so that the occupants would have time to escape, or would
be safe until the fire department arrived.
In Bramptons case, some home operators evaded the Fire Code by delaying
this action. Even more troubling, they changed, in name only, the operating
definition of their home (from a group home to a foster like home).
In the course of dealing with these unscrupulous operators I met a firefighter
who told me residential sprinklers were the ultimate solution because they
give people time to escape the fire. I remembered those discussions when
I was elected to the Ontario legislature in 2003.
Within about two or three weeks of the start of the session I was advised
that I had been allotted a set date to bring forward Private Members legislation.
I scrambled to think of something that was meaningful to me that I could
bring forward. Our Premier spoke to new members of our caucus early on
in our mandate about Private Members Bills (PMB). I recall him giving
a very inspirational speech. He spoke about being brave and doing things
that you would be proud of in the future; and to challenge those around
you to make things better. Not long after that speech I phoned my friend,
Brian Maltby, who is a Division Fire Chief in Brampton and asked him to
help me draft a piece of legislation on making residential sprinklers mandatory.
Brian jumped at the chance and agreed to help me. I remember a story he
told me when I first got to know him. It is a chilling story of arriving
at a fire in Brampton to find the mother standing outside her burned home,
screaming that her babies were inside. Later he had to go back to tell
that distraught mother that her babies were both dead. This was likely
one of the darkest days of his career; and it is something that many firefighters
dread. Having to go through a home and find those who were unable to escape
is clearly a life altering experience. He told me that many of these deaths
are preventable and that residential fire sprinklers were the next step
to preventing fires.
For those not familiar with Private Members legislation let me summarize
a few of the problems. First a PMB cannot impose a cost. Second, they have
a very slim chance of passing. They may make it through the first two readings
fairly easily and be sent to be reviewed by a Committee.
Most Standing Committees have a heavy workload and they rarely get to Private
I chair the Standing Committee on General Government, and I think two-thirds
of all legislation that travels through our Legislature eventually comes
to this Committee. Rarely, if ever, do we get to debate Private Members
legislation because all our time is scheduled to deal with government legislation.
It is frustrating if you are an individual who has worked hard to bring
forward something that you think will make a difference in your community.
I introduced my first Private Members Bill entitled the Home Fire Sprinkler
Act on November 2, 2004. It was An Act to amend the Building Code, 1992,
respecting home fire sprinklers. Bill 141 would have amended the Building
Code to prevent any person from constructing a new detached home, semi-detached
home, or row house that was not equipped with a sprinkler system. During
the first debate on my Bill, the Opposition asked why I limited the housing
style where sprinklers could be installed. It was good advice and I took
their words to heart. Unfortunately, Bill 141 died on the order paper.
My second Private Members Bill, Bill 2, was introduced the following October
when the House returned. This new and improved bill, based on advice I
received from the Opposition, would have amended the Building Code to prevent
anyone from constructing any dwelling not equipped with a sprinkler system.
Simply put, no matter the type of new home purchased, you would be protected
where you slept. Again, Bill 2 died on the order paper.
Following the failure of my second Private Members Bill, I was disappointed,
but it was clear that the publics perceptions on this issue were shifting
in Ontario. The first time I spoke about the sprinkler issue at a Rotary
Club, one of the Rotarians asked me why I cared about lawn sprinklers!
Today, the public knows more about this issue likely because their families
and friends in the United States have had this technology in place for
some time. In Ontario, I have seen the gradual knowledge on this issue
escalate over the last five years to the point where I am not starting
from the beginning when I talk to a new audience.
In Toronto and other municipalities I have noticed a desire by elected
officials to supersede provincial standards in certain areas like pesticide
control and energy conservation. I am hoping this new-found interest by
municipalities to take on responsibility for enacting higher standards
for things like weed control and energy in their own communities, will
extend to residential sprinkler systems in the future.
Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing
over and over and expect a different outcome. So I decided to try a different
tactic when I introduced the third version of my Private Members legislation.
My latest Bill is designed to engage municipalities in their desire to
enact higher standards.
My current Bill would ultimately amend the Building Code Act to allow municipalities
to enact a by-law that would require residential sprinklers to be installed
in all new residential occupancies. Provincial laws set the minimum and
maximum requirements for the construction of new buildings. This Bill proposes
to change this by allowing these municipal by-laws to prevail over provincial
In the spring of 2006, I worked with the mayor and the fire chief of the
City of Toronto to try and insert the life safety benefits of residential
sprinklers through the City of Toronto Act, which was a Government Bill.
I was unsuccessful. Months later, I spoke in favour of an NDP Private Members
Bill entitled Fire Protection Statute Law Amendment, again trying to make
a friendly amendment which would have inserted the life safety benefits
of residential fire sprinklers. Again I was unsuccessful.
My goal has always been to get this issue to a public hearing of a legislative
committee. Over the last five years I have tried to educate my colleagues
and the public about this issue. I believe it is important for us, as elected
officials, to bring forward legislation that we think is meaningful, and
also to support complementary legislation which secures the safety of all
people that we represent in Ontario. I continue to dialogue with members
of my caucus, my Cabinet, and all members of the Legislature, because I
believe this issue goes beyond partisan politics.
One of the objections I frequently encounter is that we do not need sprinklers
because most houses have smoke alarms. Smoke alarms do what their name
implies they provide early detection and warning of the smoke from fire,
but they take no action on the fire itself. When the smoke alarm goes off
you have only a matter of minutes to safely exit your home. If you are
elderly, impaired, disabled, or if you are a child, then your ability to
safely exit a building requires more time.
A fire doubles in size each minute so, the first two or three minutes are
absolutely critical. If you have sprinklers in place it can help catch
the fire at the smallest stage. Sprinklers do not always extinguish the
fire, but they can hold it in check until the fire department arrives.
Let me give you a real example I read about in the newspaper recently.
A stovetop fire broke out around 12:30 a.m. on a Saturday. The two occupants
of the apartment had gone to bed; apparently not realizing one of the stoves
burners was still turned on. The food on the stove caught fire. The fire
spread to the cabinets. Fire sprinklers doused the blaze and the occupants
were awakened by the sprinkler systems water flow alarm which sounds when
the sprinkler is discharged. When the firefighters arrived they found the
apartments two occupants waiting safely outside, along with three neighbours
who evacuated from an upstairs unit of the fourplex when they heard the
alarm. The fire was extinguished by a single sprinkler head. Damage was
estimated to be $5,000.
Smoke alarms are not enough. The contents found in the average home today
have drastically changed and the impact and consequences of a fire, as
compared to as few as twenty years ago, has really changed. The interior
finishes of the upholsteries and the carpet are laminates, and the contents
are made of synthetic foams and plastics which result in fires that burn
hotter and burn more quickly. These synthetics produce higher concentrations
of toxic smoke, imposing a higher risk to occupants and responding firefighters.
The National Fire Protection Association reports that people with smoke
alarms in their homes have a 50 percent better chance of surviving a fire.
If you have a sprinkler with that smoke alarm, your chances increase to
an 82 percent survival rate.
For those who have children, this is particularly important. CTV News did
a story a couple of years ago about a smoke alarm test of children aged
five to fourteen. Each child was told that the smoke alarm would be tested
during the night and when they heard the alarm to get out of bed and come
down stairs. That night when the smoke alarm was activated not one child
got out of bed. Many of them never did truly awaken. Many just pulled the
covers over their head. It is clear from this experiment and subsequent
studies that children have a much deeper sleep cycle than adults.
One in ten Canadians has experienced a home fire and sadly, on average,
more than 100 people die in a fire every year in Ontario. They happen in
a place where you should feel the safest in your home. Without sprinklers,
the heat and the smoke from a fire travel so quickly that furniture and
possessions are engulfed within minutes. Fires typically burn from 10 to
15 minutes before firefighters arrive. Sprinklers are a proven automatic
technology, like an airbag in your car. They do not rely on changed human
behaviour to prevent an accident or a loss of life.
Opposition and Support for Residential Sprinklers
If government has not yet embraced this issue it is because of resistance
from groups like the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association, along
with the Urban Development Institute, the Ontario Home Builders, and The
Canadian Home Builders Associations.
I must be doing something right because these powerful and well-funded
special interest groups have mounted a rather professional, organized resistance
to this issue. Home Builders Associations have tried to discredit the
entire concept of residential sprinklers and argue that governments are
developing policies based entirely on politics, rather than on the actual
merits of the issue.
Opposition groups claim the cost of sprinklers is excessive. In September
2008, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, an affiliate of the National
Fire Protection Association, assessed the cost of installing residential
sprinklers. According to the report, the cost of installing residential
fire sprinkler systems to the home builder averaged $1.61 per sprinklered
Obviously the more homes you build, the lower the cost and frankly I do
not know what price I would put on the life of someone I love.
Homeowners choose granite kitchen countertops, widescreen televisions,
and whirlpool bathtubs, but skimp on technology that has the potential
to save their lives and those of the people they care about. Homeowners
stand to benefit. Ultimately they will have a safer home in which to live
and decreased costs because their insurance premiums will be lower.
Another criticism of residential sprinklers is that they are unreliable
and accidental discharge is common. Sprinklers gone wild is a recurrent
plot devised in the movies. Movies would have you believe that if you ignite
a lighter beneath a sprinkler head it will trigger an explosion of water.
This makes for great excitement on the movie screen but in reality each
sprinkler head works independently of all others.
Sprinkler technology is mature, and safe; and accidental activation is
extremely rare. The sprinkler technology is faster and more effective than
in the past. These heat-activated units are designed so that, at 130 degrees,
a cosmetic plate falls off the sprinkler head. Activation occurs a few
seconds later, at about 155 or 165 degrees, when a fusible metal link or
a liquid-filled capsule breaks and releases pressurized water.
The odds of a sprinkler head being activated accidentally, due to a malfunction
defect, are one in 16 million. You have a better chance of being hit by
lightning than having your properly installed fire sprinkler going off
Builders would argue that they are building safer homes; using fire resistant
materials and hard-wired smoke alarms. But it is clear that these measures
are not enough people are still dying. We need to do more to protect
what we value most. Firefighters stand to benefit as injuries and death
will be reduced in number. They will no longer be put at the same level
of risk that they are with an unsprinklered home. Residential sprinkler
installation would result in a safer workplace.
Who supports residential sprinklers? The firefighting community supports
residential fire sprinklers including the Canadian Association of Fire
Chiefs, the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, the Canadian Council of
Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, the Ontario Municipal Fire Prevention
Officers Association, the National Fire Protection Association, the International
Association of Fire Chiefs, the Ontario Fire Marshal, the International
Association of Fire Fighters, Fire SAFE Ontario, and the insurance industry.
I think individual builders are another ally. And, in time, I believe the
Associations who currently oppose this legislation will be my best advocates
they just do not know it yet. There clearly are individual builders who
want to build a safer product and are looking for a way to make it possible.
These are business people who are flexible enough to adapt to shifts in
consumer needs. They identify innovative building practices and deliver
a product that consumers feel comfortable purchasing. Builders want repeat
customers. If you feel a builder is someone who constructs a safe home,
you will not only tell your friends but, given an opportunity, you may
buy another home from that same builder.
How receptive is the general public to the idea of residential sprinklers?
We know that residential fire sprinkler systems not only save lives, but
they also reduce the number of injuries from fire and significantly reduce
the cost associated with fires. We would never think of buying a car today
without seatbelts or without air bags. Why is it so difficult to contemplate
putting sprinklers in your home, the place where you spend up to two thirds
of your day?
Every day, you spend the majority of your waking hours in a building that
is sprinklered. Commercial and industrial facilities are all routinely
sprinklered. When you go to church, to the library, to the mall, or to
school, they are all sprinklered. But when you go home you are not protected.
What is Happening Elsewhere?
In 1990, Vancouver became the first large Canadian city to enact a residential
sprinkler by-law. In the 18 years since its enactment, while there have
been a number of fire deaths in unsprinklered homes, there has not been
a single fire related fatality in a home that has a properly installed
and maintained residential fire sprinkler.
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland have all required their
older nursing homes to be retroactively sprinklered, and I can assure you
that other provinces are watching with great interest. Despite countless
coroners inquests over the last two decades, there has been a resistance
to retroactively sprinkler these long-term care facilities.
In Ontario the Building Code includes earthquake protection. No one has
died recently as a result of earthquakes. Surely it is time we had a building
code to require residential sprinklers considering how many lives are lost
as the result of fires.
Only a couple of months ago, in September, the International Code Council
met in Minnesota where there was an historic vote on residential sprinklers.
The International Code Council is an association dedicated to building
safety and fire prevention. They develop the codes used to construct residential
and commercial buildings, including homes and schools. This vote on residential
sprinklers was highly anticipated and there was furious lobbying by the
building industry to defeat the resolution as this was the second time
it had been brought forward. The builders were paying to fly people down
to Minneapolis to vote against this resolution. In the end safety prevailed
and the resolution passed.
A Happy Ending?
Although none of my bills have yet passed, it is clear to me that Private
Members legislation can really increase awareness. As elected officials,
we have a great opportunity to talk about whats important in our communities.
It is important that we acknowledge and celebrate when there is significant
progress on an issue. Recently, the Ontario government introduced an amendment
to the Ontario Building Code which would require new multi-residential
buildings over three storeys to have residential sprinkler systems as
of April 2010. Ontario was the only province in Canada that did not mandate
residential fire sprinklers in high-rises. Certainly a great first step
and one that I believe will ultimately save lives. I attribute our governments
efforts to the work being done by the fire safety community and the awareness
created by my successive efforts in the Legislature on this issue.
I no longer wonder if residential fire sprinklers are going to happen.
I now just wonder when it will happen. Governments have a responsibility
to introduce legislation that they believe will ensure the safety and well-being
of our communities. That is why we have passed legislation on a variety
of issues, ranging from automobile safety to construction standards. I
want Ontario to be the first province in Canada to mandate residential
When it comes to public policy on residential sprinklers let me paraphrase
a wise man who once said: the best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago;
the second best time is today. It is never too late. The best time to have
installed residential fire sprinklers would have been 25 years ago. The
second best time is today.