Two recent fires in long-term care (LTC) facilities stress the common theme that has been promoted by fire and life safety professionals for decades: Fire sprinklers save lives. Following the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services deadline requiring that all skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) throughout the United States be fully sprinklered by Aug. 13, 2013, these two fires clearly demonstrate the life-saving benefits of a fire sprinkler system.
Fire sprinklers clearly provide enhanced levels of life safety in all types of occupancies but are of significant value in healthcare and supportive living environments where patients and residents may not be ambulatory or may face significant challenges associated with an elderly or medically complex population.
The first fire occurred in an Illinois senior living campus that included a SNF and an assisted living facility (ALF). According to news reports, the fire was started when a resident of the community apparently placed clothes in microwave oven. Smoke from the fire sent six residents to the hospital but fire spread was controlled at the point of origin by a sprinkler head in the room. Had the building not been equipped with a fire sprinkler system, it is fair to assume that the fire would have spread and more of the building’s occupants could have been injured or killed.
Unfortunately, long-term care has a long and sad history of fire deaths that have occurred in non-sprinklered facilities. A historical perspective of this specific issue is provided in a NFPA Journal article released earlier this year entitled, “Long Time Coming.”
The second incident occurred in a SNF in Arizona, where a fire started in the facility’s main laundry room after microfiber mop heads were laundered, dried in a commercial clothes dryer and subsequently placed in a plastic bag beneath a stainless steel folding table. Several hours after this process was completed, a rare phenomenon known as spontaneous heating apparently occurred causing the material in the plastic bag to heat up and reach its auto-ignition temperature and catch fire. Evidence at the scene of the fire including video camera surveillance in the laundry room supports this finding. Once again, the facility’s fire sprinkler system activated and controlled the fire in the area of origin. Staff members who responded to the fire alarm wisely did not open the door to the laundry room; this kept the fire contained and limited the spread of smoke until the fire department arrived.
Incidents such as these happen around the nation on a frequent basis and get little or no news coverage. Successful fire control due to sprinkler activation in a healthcare facility or ALF is not typically front-page news, but the lives saved cannot be underestimated.
Fire sprinkler systems are critical components of every LTC community’s life safety program and must be inspected, tested and maintained in compliant manner to ensure that they will perform effectively when a fire occurs.