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Families Must Be Proactive to Keep Relatives Safe from Nursing Home Fires

On August 5 in a small Ohio town, a 64-year-old woman died after a fire started in her apartment within an 11-story senior apartment complex.

The woman lived in a seventh-floor apartment, where investigators believe the fire originated from a candle in the living room. Firefighter responded at 10:38 p.m. after the building’s fire alarm went off. When engines arrived, there was smoke visibly coming from the seventh floor. The fire was contained to the woman’s apartment and was knocked down quickly. Firefighters found the unconscious woman in the apartment and carried her down a ladder, witnesses said. “It’s very tragic. The guys are pretty broken up about it,” said the fire department’s chief.

An autopsy determined that the woman died of smoke inhalation. What’s more, numerous other residents of the senior complex were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation, with a few taken to a hospital. The American Red Cross found shelter for up to 30 other seventh-floor residents displaced by the fire. But many stayed with relatives instead.

Some of the building’s residents from other floors exited when the alarm sounded, but many were told to simply go to their balconies. One seventh-floor resident said the hallway was filled with smoke when she evacuated. “We’ve had a lot of fires, but nothing this bad,” said the tenant, who has lived there five years.

One other resident said that other fires had occurred in the past after people fell asleep while cooking. Three people were treated for smoke inhalation following a kitchen fire on the fifth-floor of the building on May 16.

The local fire chief said the 232-unit building pre-dates sprinkler systems, but has a “state-of-the-art alarm system” that gives sound, visual and voice cues so that the hard of hearing and other handicapped residents can get adequate warning in an emergency. He said fire crews train at the building often, so they are prepared to deal with the challenges of working in a high rise and evacuating hundreds of elderly residents.

A similar story took place in Pennsylvania just days before this incident. There, a fire forced the evacuation of a nursing center and sent five residents to area hospitals with smoke inhalation.

The local fire marshal said firefighters were dispatched to the center at 1:30 a.m. When they arrived, they found smoke coming from one of the hallways, but the fire had already been extinguished by the building’s sprinkler system.

The staff at the facility quickly reacted and got all residents out of the building. It turns out that the fire occurred in a bedroom.

“The residents’ injuries were not life-threatening,” said the fire marshal. “The staff did a very good job of getting the residents out safely.”

Now, the difference between these two incidents should serve as a lesson to families who are looking to move older relatives into senior housing and nursing homes. In the first incident, some residents were told to move to their balconies rather than leave the building. But if those residents received severe burns or smoke inhalation while on the balcony, the facility operator might have incurred legal liability for burns or smoke-inhalation injuries. Also, while it may be legal for an older building to not have fire sprinklers, families might want to ask a lot of questions of the facility’s staff–and then think hard before placing a relative in such a facility.

On the other hand, the actions of the staff in the second incident meant that these employees knew what they were doing, and were able to get all residents out of the building quickly. This facility had a system in place that surely brings peace of mind to the residents, and to their relatives too.

In short, families must investigate in detail what fire-alarm systems and fire-suppression systems are in place at a facility, and also understand the evacuation procedures that are used there. Families should also review the fire history at the facility, to see if residents are careless with candles, or cooking materials, or other items that can start fires.

These types of information could be a matter of life and death for a loved one who needs some attention and assistance from caregivers each day.