Some type of fire or smoke condition will happen on your watch. Whether you are an administrator, care manager, maintenance director, care staff or part of the facilities team, a fire emergency will happen at some point in your long-term care (LTC) career. Your building’s fire protection features will be of critical importance, including the fire alarm system, fire sprinkler system and the facility’s associated emergency procedures.
Federal, state and local codes, standards, ordinances and regulations typically require a number of comprehensive safety measures in LTC facilities. In general, fire and life safety requirements will be consistent with the acuity and evacuation capabilities of the resident population of a healthcare facility.
The integration of state-of-the art fire alarm systems along with fire sprinkler systems are one of the most important operational elements of buildings that provide services to the sick, elderly and frail.
In my experience as a fire marshal and life safety consultant, many operators of LTC facilities—or any type of occupancy, such as retail, business or assembly—assume that as long as their buildings are protected by these sophisticated systems, they have little to worry about. While the presence of these systems undoubtedly saves lives, fire protection systems alone cannot guarantee protection.
Providing all staff members of a LTC facility with proactive training on these systems is essential. Additionally, adopting emergency procedures that are synergistically aligned with these systems is extremely important.
A 2015 lawsuit settlement filed by the Texas Attorney General’s office alleged an assisted living facility was not properly protected by a fire sprinkler system highlights that gaps and vulnerabilities may exist in the design, installation and maintenance of these critical systems. Having your entire team, including design, construction and sustainability personnel work proactively with all authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) can help your facility overcome some of the barriers to safety and compliance.
Another case in 2015 involved a serious fire in a Georgia retirement community where one person was killed and scores of others were displaced. The lawsuit alleged flawed management and a dangerous shelter-in-place policy that encouraged residents to stay in their apartments instead of evacuating the building.
While it is common practice to develop emergency procedures that do not require residents who are properly protected by fire sprinkler systems to immediately evacuate, appropriate levels of training and decision-making must be incorporated into the emergency planning process to ensure occupants react appropriately. In cases where the fire sprinkler system fails to operate or when the systems have been shut off by accidental or intentional means, building occupants must be trained to adjust their strategies for sheltering-in-place or evacuating depending on the specific circumstances at the time of the emergency.
The Titanic wasn’t supposed to sink. Fire sprinkler systems are supposed to activate when there is a fire. It must be acknowledged that ships can sink when not properly navigated and fire protection systems can fail when not properly designed, installed, tested and maintained.
Training staff to fully understand the dynamics of a facility’s fire protection and life safety systems should be part of every LTC community’s training program. For example, every staff member should know the activation temperature of a standard fire sprinkler head is 165 degrees Fahrenheit and quick response fire sprinkler heads activate at 135 degrees Fahrenheit. These thresholds and activation points are critical in helping staff members determine if they should attempt to fight a fire in accordance with the R.A.C.E. (rescue, alarm, contain, extinguish) procedure.
While it is not the expectation that every employee be fire protection system experts, it is the expectation that all employees to have a thorough understanding of the basic principles of fire detection. Similar to the procedures that firefighters and other first-responders in your community utilize when responding to an emergency scene, it is essential for your team to size up or assess the situation with available facts along with an understanding of how installed fire protection systems operate to help ensure a safe and successful emergency operation when fire strikes.
Stan Szpytek, a former deputy fire chief and fire marshal, is president of Fire and Life Safety, Inc., Mesa, Ariz., and is the Life Safety/Disaster Planning Consultant for the Arizona Health Care Association and California Association of Health Facilities. E-mail Szpytek at Firemarshal10@aol.com.