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Life safety compliance: Keep your exits clear!

March 6, 2012
by Stan Szpytek
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Evacuation plans are just “plans” unless all staff and residents know what to do
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Your building’s exits are one of the most important life-safety features built into your LTC or senior living community. While often taken for granted, exits are usually seen from a single dimension. Most people visiting, living and working within a facility or building of any type tend to typically consider “one” point of entry and egress.  Of course, that one point of entry/egress is the way they entered the structure. During an emergency, such as a fire or other critical situation requiring evacuation, it is imperative that building occupants consider all exits as a potential means of escape. As the operator of a regulated facility or independent senior housing property, it is your responsibility to keep every exit free and clear of all obstructions and potential impediments to evacuation.

Unfortunately, we have seen two terrible tragedies in the United States back in 2003 where a compromised means of egress led to the deaths of more than 120 people. Incidents in Chicago and Rhode Island exemplified what a crowd of people will do during an emergency situation when all of a building’s exits are not properly utilized. Both disasters occurred in public assembly occupancies (nightclubs) where the majority of deaths were attributed to most of the occupants rushing to the main exit instead of using alternate emergency exits.  People will do what comes naturally during a stress-filled emergency situation and that is to try to leave a space the same way that they came into it.

Life safety, fire and building codes require multiple exits in all buildings used for public assembly and other business types—especially healthcare, assisted living and independent senior living properties. It is also the responsibility of facility owners and operators to ensure that all exits are clearly marked and maintained in a compliant manner. Additionally, it is essential that all employees know the location of all of the building’s exits and understand that the “closest exit” must be used in an emergency evacuation.  When a crisis strikes, employees must help direct building occupants including residents, patients and visitors to safety by guiding them to the closest exit. While the closest exit may not be commonly used to enter the building, it is likely to be the fastest way to leave during an emergency evacuation.

Exit paths are often partially obstructed by items improperly placed in the means of egress. Secondary exits, exit hallways and emergency exits are sometimes obstructed by boxes, workstations, wheelchairs, med carts, garbage containers and other items that can impede egress.  Facility managers and employees must be aware of the critical importance of the building’s exits and exit paths and maintain unobstructed access to these essential life-safety features at all times.

For regulated facilities like skilled nursing homes, Chapter 7 of NFPA 101, The Life Safety Code (2000 edition as adopted by CMS) provides the requirements for the means of egress for both new and existing occupancies regulated by the code in chapter 18 (New Healthcare Occupancies) and chapter 19 (Existing Healthcare Occupancies). Additionally, The Life Safety Code is frequently referenced by other safety and building codes and is often considered a reference for best practices pertaining to building exits and the overall means of egress.  Chapter 7 of the code, as well as the individual occupancy sections, identifies all requirements for this element of life safety compliance in SNFs  as well as Residential Board and Care Occupancies (chapters 32 and 33).

Life safety surveyors, fire inspectors, insurance company representatives and other persons responsible for inspecting LTC facilities often discover hazardous conditions related to compromised means of egress during holidays. While operators continue to proactively integrate a “homelike” environment LTC communities across the country, focus on safety and compliance is sometimes overshadowed.

As an example, a series of extremely hazardous conditions were discovered in an LTC facility several years ago during the week prior to Halloween. One shift decorated one resident hallway while the another shift was assigned the other hallway in the one-story facility. Staff members enthusiastically installed every type of spooky and combustible decoration. While staff should be given an “A” for creative effort, they created an environment that was not only hazardous but in violation of a number of sections of The Life Safety Code as well as local fire codes.  Facilities must maintain focus on safety compliance when decorating their communities to ensure that vital fire protection and life safety features, including the means of egress, are never compromised. 

Most building occupants typically do not realize the importance of the means of egress including hallways, stairwells, ramps and other elements of the floor plan, until they are compromised or completely inaccessible during an emergency.  It is essential to ensure the safety of your LTC community by training all staff to know the location of every exit, how to maintain the means of egress in a safe and compliant manners as well as know how to initiate proper evacuation procedures during an emergency.

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