Many Nursing Homes Ill-equipped To Handle Fire

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A series of newspaper stories have exposed the lack of fire safety standards at assisted-living facilities and nursing homes in the U.S. According to these reports, these facilities are often ill-equipped to prevent damage and loss of life from fire.

Following the deaths of 31 residents in nursing home fires in Hartford, Conn., and Nashville, Tenn., in 2003, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding, “State and federal oversight of nursing home fire safety is inadequate.”

Lawmakers have since introduced the Nursing Home Fire Safety Act, which would require regulators to adopt stronger fire-safety standards.

Fire kills more Americans annually than all other natural disasters combined, and the United States has one of the worst fire safety records among industrialized nations around the world, according to Robert D. Thomas, vice president of engineering at the National Concrete Masonry Association.

The situation exists despite a prevalent use of detection systems, tough code requirements for sprinklers and some of the best trained and equipped fire service and emergency response teams.

The problem, according to NCMA, is that existing U.S. building codes, standards and construction favor the use of light construction over noncombustible fire containment construction, such as concrete masonry.

“Noncombustible masonry construction can reduce or eliminate the spread of fire and provide additional protection and time for occupants to exit and for fire and emergency personnel to safely conduct rescue operations,” Thomas said.

Before a nursing home or assisted-living facility is built, certain features should be incorporated in the construction plans to reduce property damage and loss of life from fire, he said.

“To provide the best protection and greatest opportunity for the elderly and infirm to escape a fire, the design for these buildings needs to include a balanced use of three key elements: fire detection, fire suppression and fire containment,” Thomas said. “Fire containment includes fire barriers, fire-rated assemblies and exterior walls built of substantial, noncombustible materials such as concrete masonry.”

What can potential occupants of assisted living facilities and their families do? Thomas offers these tips:

* Make sure the facility has sufficient fire-detection systems and that sprinklers are present and operational.

* Ask to be shown the placement of firewalls designed to prevent fire from spreading.

* Encourage local code officials to participate in making building codes more fire safe and to recognize the importance of using noncombustible construction.