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Effects of Quebec fire extend south and across an ocean

February 7, 2014
by Lois A. Bowers, Senior Editor
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The effects of a Jan. 23 fire at a Quebec senior home, where 32 people are believed to have died, are reaching south to the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean.

Firefighters in Oak Ridge, Tenn., noting the blaze in Canada, are crediting the Patriot Park Assisted Living facility’s working sprinkler system with helping them contain a Jan. 31 fire there to one room, with minimal damage and an evacuation of residents that lasted only 20 minutes. “Without the sprinkler system, we believe the outcome would be very different,” Oak Ridge Fire Department Chief Darryl Kerley said in a press release.

Tennessee mandated working sprinkler systems in senior residential facilities after a 2003 nursing home fire in Nashville in which eight residents died and about 20 were critically injured. The Oak Ridge Fire Department also stresses the importance of smoke alarms and evacuation plans in fire prevention efforts.

Meanwhile, in Great Britain, the Quebec fire has prompted independent fire safety experts to call for sprinkler systems to be installed in all United Kingdom (U.K.) senior living facilities. Current regulations in the United Kingdom detail fire alarm and fire separation requirements in care homes, a representative of Safety Management (SMUK) tells Long-Term Living. The regulations call for emergency lighting, clearly marked and unblocked fire exits, prevention measures such as the removal of combustible materials from communal areas, careful and controlled storage of combustibles, and steps to stop the spread of fire, such as fire doors and extinguishers, says Brian Gregory, managing director of SMUK. But the United Kingdom does not require sprinkler systems, he adds.

“Sprinkler systems are a life-saver,” Gregory says. “They won’t put a fire out, but they will stop it from spreading. They buy time, and for elderly or infirm people that can be vitally important.”

SMUK in 2013 began campaigning for laws mandating sprinkler systems in U.K. high-rise apartments and now has extended that effort to care homes, shelters and public assistance housing there. Buildings that don’t have sprinklers should be retrofitted, says Gregory, a former firefighter.

“The cost of retrofitting is now significantly less than it was in the past,” he says. “We recently recommended the retrofitting of sprinklers in a care home rather than upgrading fire doors, as this was the more cost-effective option for the care home.”

As do fire officials in Tennessee, the company also recommends that senior living facilities assess their fire prevention procedures and establish personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for every resident. “PEEPs are individual to each resident and ensure everyone working in a home knows the level of mobility of individual people and what is needed to get them to a place of safety,” Gregory says. Such plans are especially important for nighttime incidents, when staffing levels are lower and family members are less likely to be present, he adds.

SMUK says it completes 6,000 fire risk assessments each year for care homes, hotel chains, businesses and retailers as well as other accommodation providers.

In May, the Canadian government required that all senior living sites there have fire sprinklers and other safety measures in place. They have five years to comply.

In the United States, a 2008 rule by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) required long-term care facilities to install automatic sprinkler systems in all resident areas by Aug. 13, 2013. By the deadline, however, more than 1,000 nursing homes either had no sprinkler system or had only a partial system. In November, CMS said that under some conditions, facilities not fully sprinklered could be cited with a “C-level deficiency”—a level that represents the potential for minimal harm and is outside the agency’s authority to impose an enforcement action—rather than a more severe deficiency that could result in termination from the Medicare program.

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