Care homes represent one of the most high-risk establishments when it comes to fire safety. The combination of the frailty of occupants and the age of buildings heightens the risk.
Care home residents often have difficulty with evacuation, in part due to slow responses to a fire alarm sounding and mobility challenges. The fire strategies for these buildings are, therefore, more complex than others.
Fire Safety Regulation
Care home owners and managers need to be aware of the Fire Safety Order (FSO); the current law in England and Wales. The FSO nominates one individual as the ‘Responsible Person’ for a building – generally deemed to be the owner, occupier or employer.
Quite often a care home manager can be the designated ‘Responsible Person’ without knowing it and without any fire safety knowledge or training. However, just because they are listed as the ‘Responsible Person’ doesn’t mean they need to know everything about fire safety; someone else can be nominated to be a ‘Competent Person’ for the premises and be sent on fire safety training courses accordingly.
The ‘Responsible Person’ has a duty to fulfil the requirements of the FSO. Those requirements all stem from having a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment. The care home manger will need to prove that they have reduced fire risk as far as is reasonably practicable and show that they have taken precautions to protect its residents and employees.
Rosepark Nursing Home
Doors are one of the most important fire safety features in a building and also, sadly, the most commonly abused. Recent research carried out by Fireco found that 64 per cent of premises visited by the fire service found fire doors wedged open. A practice that can prove devastating as the case of the Rosepark Nursing Home in South Lanarkshire showed.
A fire broke out at Rosepark in a cupboard on 31st January 2004, it ripped through the building. The Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) conclusion for this case listed a catalogue of precautions that could have helped prevent the fire becoming as destructive. One of these precautions was for all bedroom doors to have door closers and smoke seals fitted to them.
Simply put, the loss of life would have been significantly reduced had the bedroom doors been closed. It was also noted that a few of the bedroom doors had self closers but some had been removed or disconnected, or were intact but the doors had been wedged open.
Installing a free-swing door closer on each bedroom door will allow care home residents to safely keep their bedroom doors open, but rest assured that the door will automatically shut when a fire alarm sounds.
Providing adequate training to care home staff on how to identify and report fire risks will give the owner or manager the power to reduce and remove those risks. Training should start as part of an induction, with regular updates from then on.
Ensure that the fire risk assessment is kept as a live document, rather than a ‘tick-box’ exercise carried out once a year.
Regular checks of the building need to be made, e.g. that fire doors are still closing properly and the means of escape routes are kept clear of any obstacles.
Try to spread out fire training throughout the year. Regular training updates could involve evacuation drills, how to use a fire blanket, fire extinguisher training and how to change the lint filters in tumble dryers.
Keep an online diary of fire safety training with a sign-off for employees.
Make sure that everyone who comes into contact with the building is also trained in fire risks including agency staff, builders, cleaners and gardeners. They also need to understand the importance of keeping a fire door closed and not wedged open, and looking out for things like damage to fire doors, frayed wiring and blockages to means of escape routes.
There should be a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) in place for each individual resident. This plan details the resident’s needs and requirements. It can be useful to set the fire alarm off and record each resident’s response and reaction to it. In some cases, a loud continuous noise can provoke unexpected reactions including violent outbursts or even seizures. Care home managers also need to be aware if the resident doesn’t respond at all to the alarm, or has a very slow reaction to it. All staff should have access to, and be made aware of, these PEEPs.
Employees also need to have faith that fire doors will actually resist fire for 30 minutes. In the event of a fire, they will have the hard task of going around and informing the residents. Faith in the doors can help instil a sense of calm and this will help to save lives.
The main enforcer of the FSO is the Fire and Rescue Service. If a care home is found to have something wrong with the premises, it may be issued with an enforcement notice. This notice will state that the law has been broken and this needs to be rectified within a certain timescale. There is a right to appeal the notice within 21 days.
If an enforcement notice is not complied with, penalties range from large fines, restrictions from the Care Quality Commission and possibly imprisonment. In a recent case, a hotel owner and the fire risk assessor were both sent to prison for 18 months for failure to comply with the FSO and subsequent enforcement notice.
Fires are, thankfully, rare occurrences but prevention is essential. The most important piece of advice to help avoid fire disasters is to ensure regular inspections are undertaken and to make fire safety part of everyday life for all staff.
Tom Welland is Conformance and Regulatory Affairs Manager at Fireco Ltd. www.firecoltd.com