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Fire safety in care homes

Jonathan Cunningham MBE discusses why now is a good time to consider fire safety in care homes and what you need to do to safeguard the lives of your clients.

The harrowing scenes of the Grenfell Tower fire have brought fire safety to the front of everyone’s mind. As such, if you haven’t reviewed your fire risk assessments recently, take some time to do this now and consider any improvements or updates you might need to ensure the safety of your residents and staff.

Understanding the dangers of fire

In 2006, the old system of fire certification was replaced by a new approach to fire risk management. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 placed the responsibility of fire assessment firmly at the feet of commercial owners. Where previously the fire service undertook the assessment, this was replaced by self-assessment which the fire service would now enforce.

Yet 11 years on, are you fully aware of your responsibility to survey, assess, mitigate, monitor and review fire risks?

Although rare, fires can be devastating. Fire spreads at an alarming speed and will consume everything. However, people seldom associate the hearing of an alarm with potential life-threatening danger and can be slow to react. Yet the speed of detection and subsequent reaction will directly influence how many lives can be saved. Added to this is the danger associated with smoke inhalation; toxic fumes produced by fire can kill within seconds.

Considerations for a fire risk assessment

As a rule, people don’t MOT their own car because cars are complex machines that need competent individuals to check they are safe. This means having the skills, knowledge, ability, training and appropriate experience.

Translate this to fire risk assessments and consider the complexities involved with undertaking such an assessment. Care homes aren’t standard work premises, they are homes to many vulnerable people and need clear, accurate and comprehensive fire risk assessments. A print out from the internet or a copy of your fire zones won’t suffice.

To undertake a fire risk assessment, you need to understand how fire behaves, but also how buildings are constructed, active and passive fire systems, how people react and how to systematically evacuate vulnerable people.

You also need to consider that, many of the people you need to evacuate will be frail, need assistance with evacuation, need medical equipment to be evacuated with them and may also require support to understand the urgency. Added to this, if a fire happens at night, you may have a skeleton staff on-site to undertake an evacuation.

Although you may think you can use fire extinguishers to buy yourself time in an evacuation situation, they are only designed for small fires and to aid escape, they won’t be able to deal with a large blaze.

A growth in private prosecutions in health and social care could have a huge impact on resources for organisations. It may also impact upon the insurance arena.

The fire service doesn’t want you fighting fires; they say it’s better to ‘get out, get your residents out and stay out’.

The greatest means of defeating a fire is to keep it trapped. That is why fitted FD30 fire doors with intumescent smoke seals are the best defence. However, it’s imperative that these are closed and unobstructed. Also, rooms need to be sealable in order to contain the fire, this means they need to be without holes in the walls for piping or IT trunking.

The Government website, gov.uk has a useful list of points to consider when undertaking a fire risk assessment. Just search ‘fire safety in the workplace’. However, I would advise that you get professional guidance to ensure the safety of your residents and staff in the event of fire.

Care home fire safety top tips

The Care Quality Commission wrote to all care providers in June, encouraging them to review their fire safety checks. If you are responsible for your fire risk assessment and undertaking a review of it, here are some important points to consider.

  1. Obtain a suitable fire risk assessment from a competent person who has appropriate experience. A fire risk assessment comprises a detailed and comprehensive premises survey, documentation audit, review of staff training and evacuation procedures.
  2. Action the findings on your fire risk assessment. It may sound obvious, but there’s little point having a fire risk assessment if you don’t action it.
  3. Identify the high-risk zones where fires can typically start and identify other common causes of fire. High risk zones, include the laundry room (de-fluff dryers every day and record it); the kitchen, especially the extractor vent (get it deep cleaned once or twice a year); and the smoking shelter (empty the cigarette bin weekly); also, PAT test residents’ electrical items.
  4. Check your fire doors. Are they a certified FD30 fire door? Do they have overhead door closures fitted? Are intumescent smoke and heat seals in place and in good condition? Do they ‘back latch’ so they stay shut? Are the frame and door well-fitting? Also get rid of all door stops. If you need the door open, fit a Dorgard or Maglock system.
  5. Ensure that there is good housekeeping in all zones, but especially in basements and stores. Make sure you keep skips away from buildings. Store your COSHH items appropriately. Have a clear plan for those residents who use oxygen and ensure that no petroleum based products are to be used on them or anyone who might smoke.
  6. Manage your contractors and ensure they are fire risk aware. This especially includes anyone who may conduct hot works or puts holes in your rooms for communications, trunking or general maintenance. Ask them to seal any holes to ensure fires can be contained.
  7. Get to know your local fire service. Liaise with them and discuss your premises’ fire management plan.
  8. Train your staff. Do they know how to locate and operate the fire panel? Do they understand about horizontal and vertical zoned evacuation? Consider external training if you don’t feel you have the expertise.
  9. Establish a list of fire checks and audits that should be completed daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly. Ensure that these checks and audits are recorded in an appropriate format and accessible to those who need to see them.
  10. Finally, ensure your care home is secure. Do not become a target for arson or those intent on crime. Fit adequate external lighting and signage and make sure you have good perimeter security to prevent unauthorised access.

Managers, owners, directors and trustees must ensure that their fire management is suitable and fit-for-purpose. The starting point is to ensure an effective fire risk assessment is in place, one that has identified the fire vulnerabilities of the premises and management systems.

Jonathan Cunningham MBE is the Managing Director of STORM Consultancy and Owner of Rosebank Care Home. Email: jonathan@stormconsultancyuk.com Twitter: @JCGlobalSpeaker

CMM subscribers, log-in to access the Government’s Fire Safety Risk Assessment: Residential Care Premises guidance or read CMM’s previous article on Fire Safety Advice for care providers. Not a subscriber? Sign-up here.

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