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Lessons learned? : Fire inquest continues


MIDHURST - If automatic sprinkler systems were required by law, former Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence owner Dean Rushlow would be "willing" to install them to prevent deaths in his seniors' homes.

However, sprinklers are not yet law. And Muskoka Heights did not have sprinklers at the time of the Jan. 19, 2009, fire that claimed the lives of four seniors.

Rushlow owns and operates two more seniors homes in Cornwall, neither of which have sprinklers.

On the witness stand for most of the day Thursday at the inquest into the Muskoka Heights deaths, lawyers grilled Rushlow on what went wrong at Muskoka Heights and what he has learned from the experience. The purpose of the inquest is not to assess blame, but to look for solutions that would assist in preventing fires and deaths in the future.

"What have you learned from the fire?" asked Bhavna Bhangu, lawyer for coroner Dirk Huyer.

"Don't rely on anybody. As far as documentation, don't rely on any of them (the fire department and the manager)."

Rushlow ran Muskoka Heights at "arms length," downloading responsibility to administrator/manager Gail Wilson.

Later, he admitted he is operating Heritage Manor and Heritage Heights Retirement Residence in the same manner, with one administrator to run the day-to-day operation of the homes. He added he has more documents sent to him and he requests more documentation on activities in the home, including fire safety procedures.

But his manager, who was already employed at the homes at his time of purchase, has a managerial background whereas Muskoka Heights manager Wilson had a high school education with an eight-week equivalent health-care aid certification and no managerial experience.

Muskoka Heights had one staff member working overnight for 21 residents at the time of the fatal fire.

Both the night worker, Denise Collins, and Wilson testified that there should have been two staff working at home overnight to evacuate the elderly residents in a timely manner.

At Rushlow's current facilities, one staff is employed overnight in each retirement home; one home houses 46 residents, the other houses 73.

"Have you learned anything about staffing levels?" asked Bhangu.

"That could be looked at in terms of mobility of residents," answered Rushlow.

Counsel for the coroner and the City of Orillia both made the point of exposing Rushlow has never read the Ontario Fire Code book from the time of purchasing Muskoka Heights in 2004 to the present day, despite the fact some of the items in the Muskoka Heights fire-safety plan were in contravention of the code.

Following the fire, Rushlow was charged and he pleaded guilty to charges under the Ontario Fire Code of failing to ensure supervisory staff were instructed in fire emergency procedures and failing to implement the fire-safety plan provision for conducting fire drills for supervisory staff.

In October 2010, Rushlow was fined $62,500. Wilson also pleaded guilty and was fined $18,750. Neither has paid their fines.

"Are you going to pay the fine in this calendar year?" asked John Saunders, lawyer for the city and the Orillia Fire Department.

"Yes," Rushlow responded.

Lawyer Graham Webb, of the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, asked if the fine has had a deterrent effect.

"Yes. It's caused me to keep better records and supporting documents," said Rushlow.

"Has it caused you to take a personal interest in the fire safety of residents in the homes?" asked Webb.

"Yes. It's something that I feel strongly about and if it's not being done, well, then I wouldn't be able to sleep at night," said Rushlow.

Webb asked Rushlow if he had given any thought to how different the fire would have been if there had been sprinklers.

"Yes. It would have been better and assisted the firefighters," he responded.

Bhangu wanted to know why Rushlow has not installed sprinklers in his Cornwall seniors' homes.

Rushlow said he has plans to add sprinklers to Heritage Manor when he adds an 80-bed addition that is in the planning stages.

Sprinklers are required by law in new buildings.

During his testimony, Rushlow told Bhangu he owns "one home now," but later admitted to Webb he owns two homes on the same street that share one administrator.

Rushlow did not want to disclose the names of his current facilities or the number of beds.

The jury was sent out of the room while the lawyers discussed whether it was relevant to the inquest goal of producing recommendations to prevent further retirement home deaths.

Despite Rushlow's fear that only the "negative" would be printed in the newspaper, coroner Huyer ruled the information is publicly available and said, "we are trying to see what Mr. Rushlow has learned from his experience."

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