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Health Care Risk Insights: Nursing Home Fire Safety

The health and safety of your residents should be your top priority, so it is important that your facility is proactive in ensuring that the proper fire safety precautions are in place. According to USA Today, more than half of the nursing homes in the United States are in violation of federally-established standards for fire safety. The newspaper reports that inspectors often ignore major safety deficiencies, even in facilities that have had a fire in the last five years. In addition, government inspectors tend to overlook these indiscretions by failing to impose penalties on facilities that do not have the proper sprinkler and alarm systems in place.

Without a sufficient fire safety program, you are exposing your organization to huge losses and lawsuits that could potentially bankrupt your business.

There are two key measures a nursing home can take to establish a sound fire safety program: installing a sprinkler system and establishing a fire safety program.

Sprinklers are essential because many residents cannot move quickly or unassisted because they are dependent on ventilators, IVs and feeding tubes. Though the equipment is costly, it is worth the extra expense. Sprinklers diffuse a fire more quickly, allowing residents and staff more time to exit the building safely.

However, a facility cannot rely on sprinklers alone to cover their risk of fire; it is also critical to have a solid fire prevention program in place. To establish a plan, consider the following three steps.

Step 1: Evaluate the Building

First, conduct a survey examining the structure of the facility.

  • Your plan will depend on if the building has a sprinkler system. If it does not, your evacuation will need to be quicker and more efficient, so your plan should take that into consideration.
  • Evaluate the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC) to determine if the vent system will disperse smoke. Additionally, determine if the HVAC has an automatic shut-off in place for the air handlers should the fire alarm sound.
  • Inspect the elevator to determine if it has fire-resistant gaskets, if pressurization has been used to prevent smoke from entering the elevator shaft and if the vertical utility shafts have adequate sealing.
  • Evaluate whether the facility has enough smoke detectors and determine if it has an automatic fire department notification system in place.
  • Determine if the facility has smoke barriers that will trap the fire in a certain area until the fire department can put it out.
  • Inspect the doors of the residents’ rooms. Doors that are 1.75 inches thick provide 20 minutes of fire protection. Also, door latches installed outside of the door prevent the door from opening even under the pressure of fire.

Step 2: Create Evacuation Procedures

Employees should be provided with specific instructions in the event that they discover a fire or hear a fire alarm. This information should be clearly posted for staff members and should also be part of your employee handbook. The procedural information should include the following:

  • Appropriate actions when discovering a fire
  • Guidelines for removing residents from the area affected by the fire
  • Explanations for how to activate the alarm
  • Guidelines for how to exit the building while assisting residents
  • Instructions for how to greet fire department staff
  • Directions for where to take firefighters in the building while residents are being evacuated
  • Instructions for how to safely remove feeding tubes, IVs, catheter drains and ventilators before evacuating residents and how to continue these functions in another designated area.

Step 3: Staff Training and Drills

In order for staff members to understand the proper procedures and have the ability to perform them quickly, the facility must conduct thorough staff training and periodic fire drills.

On a frequent basis, supervisors—such as department heads and charge nurses—should conduct fire drills with their staff. While doing so, each department can determine how well the employees are prepared in the event of an actual fire. From there, each department can conduct additional training in areas that need improving.

Protect Your Residents and Your Facility

A solid fire prevention plan eliminates your risk of penalties from the government, lowers your risk of negligence lawsuits, protects your building and your business, keeps your residents safe and is a major selling point for prospective residents and their families. With the appropriate technology and procedures in place, your facility can be prepared in the event of a fire and avoid a potentially catastrophic situation.

This Risk Insights is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice. © 2009-2010 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.