Whilst exhibiting at London’s Health Plus Care show in June, we got the opportunity to speak to some of the Fire Officers from London Fire Brigade.
The officers were spreading awareness about some of the new risks facing care homes in relation to fire safety. We agreed to publish some of this information to help spread awareness among our clients.
Prevalence of Fires in Care Homes
In 2016 alone there were 120 fires in Care Homes across London.
Fires in people’s homes are devastating and can be fatal in many cases. In elderly care homes full of vulnerable people with limited mobility, who are unable to escape unaided, the consequences can be even more severe.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) does not have a responsibility to improve fire safety in care homes.
However, they do say in their Fundamental Standards that by law, providers must ensure that they can demonstrate that their premises and equipment are safe and properly maintained.
Fire Risk in Care Homes
In addition to the usual fire risks, there are additional risks that care homes must take into consideration in order to maintain the safety of their residents.
The use of Air Flow Mattresses
Air flow mattresses consist of a mattress made of cells which a pump fills with air. This alternates pressure points for people with vulnerable skin who cannot change their own position independently.
These pose a fire risk as the air in the mattress can fuel a fire, particularly if the mattress has been punctured. The pump will compensate by producing more air, causing the fire to spread and intensify.
Furthermore, most mattresses have a battery backup and will continue to operate even if the electrical supply fails.
There have been fatalities in the North West when an older person has dropped a lit cigarette onto an air flow mattress.
The use of Emollients
Emollient creams are used commonly by older people to treat dry skin conditions.
Emollient creams work by covering the skin with a protective layer to stop moisture loss. The creams can easily impregnate bedding and clothing, and the products are highly flammable, particularly as they contain paraffin.
Residents who smoke are again at an increased risk. There have been cases when people have dropped lit cigarettes onto their clothing or skin when emollients have been used.
Generally electronic cigarettes are considered to be safer than regular cigarettes, cigars and pipes, however, there are still risks associated with their use.
Derbyshire Fire and Rescue attended a Nursing home where a resident sadly died of her injuries. The fire was caused by an overheated battery pack that had exploded whilst on charge.
There was also an incident when an oxygen user was using an e cigarette and an eruption of flames caused burns to their face.
Users must remember that e cigarettes have a heating element, which vaporises the liquid. This can be an ignition source and is a risk when in close proximity to oxygen.
People who smoke and live in a care home may be at a higher risk when smoking.
If a person has restricted mobility or is unable to smoke safely, they are at a greater risk of injury.
There have been instances when carers have taken residents to a smoking area and left residents to have their cigarette. Burns have been caused by the resident dropping their cigarette onto their clothing.
There is also a higher risk to other people in the care home if residents are unable to discard their cigarettes safely, as this increases the risk of fire in the home.
Managing Fire Risks in the Care Home
There are several ways in which care homes can manage aforementioned fire risks.
One of the most important aspects of fire safety is ensuring that all staff working in the care home attend regular fire training.
The quality of the training ought to be high, with the demonstrable outcome being that all staff know what they need to do if a fire is suspected. Night staff are usually required to attend training more frequently as they tend to work in smaller teams and would have a lot of responsibility should a fire break out during the night.
Care homes should have an up to date contingency plan in place. This ought to include what would happen in an evacuation, where would the residents go to in the first instance? Usually this can be a local community space such as a church hall or school.
The CQC will now ask care homes to produce PEEP’s, which are ‘Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans’.
Every resident should have a bespoke escape plan that details the help they require to escape from the care home if needed. This should include any special information that the fire brigade may need to know, such as if a resident uses oxygen.
It is good practice for care homes to stage regular fire drills. Practicing the steps to take when the fire alarm sounds can help to prepare staff for what would happen in a real life fire situation.
Fire Equipment Maintenance
Fire safety equipment in the home should be maintained and serviced regularly. This should also include things like fire door and emergency lighting to ensure that they would work effectively in the event of a fire.
Air mattresses have been identified as a major risk; they need to be serviced regularly to ensure that they have been properly maintained. Staff need to get into the routine of reporting anything that does not appear to be working properly to maintenance staff immediately so that it can be checked.
Care homes should ensure that all materials, soft furnishings, furniture etc. is fire retardant. This will reduce the chances of a fire spreading through the home.
Bedrooms should be kept free of clutter so that residents can escape or be assisted to escape promptly in an emergency.
Care homes should make sure that electrical items are unplugged when not in use. Plug sockets should not be overloaded. It is also important to keep electrical items away from the residents’ beds, especially when oxygen is used or the resident sleeps on an airflow mattress.
When residents are using paraffin based creams and emollients, their bedding needs to be laundered frequently to prevent the products soaking in to their sheets and increasing the risk of combustion.
Fire Risk Assessment
Risk assessments should be carried out with people who choose to smoke. The risk assessment may show that they need to be supervised when smoking, or that they require help.
Many homes are now becoming smoke free and residents are asked to smoke outside in a designated area. This is often a decision that comes up for debate. Some people believe residents should be able to smoke inside in a designated room, as it is their home and we should respect their choice. However, others believe that in order to protect the other residents from passive smoking and increased fire risk, those residents should be asked to smoke outside.
Overall, if there are any additional fire risks identified, then the care home should carry out comprehensive risk assessments to ensure that residents remain safe.
Read our article on Infection Prevention and Control for more helpful tips on assessing and mitigating risk.