By Chris Stott, Operations Director of New Path Fire & Security (www.newpathfire.co.uk)
The care home environment presents unique fire safety challenges, with failure to adhere to best practice risking tragic consequences. In a 2019 major fire safety audit by London Fire Brigade, 57% of care homes were issued with a formal notification instructing them to address safety concerns, demonstrating the difficulties of compliance in a residential environment.
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 governs fire safety regulations in care homes, imposing obligations on registered managers, risk assessors, and fire alarm technicians to ensure that measures are put in place to safeguard residents. However, the primary responsibility for compliance lies with the care provider, who acts as the employer and assumes the role of the ‘Responsible Person’.
The first step in complying with the Order is the fire risk assessment. This is a fundamental requirement for every care home and should be completed at least annually. The fire risk assessment serves as a comprehensive overview of the fire safety hazards present in the premises and outlines the preventative and responsive measures in effect. Additionally, it highlights any areas that require improvements to ensure fire safety standards are met.
Although the Order does not require a qualified person to conduct a fire risk assessment, the expertise of a professional fire risk assessor is highly beneficial for most care homes. However, it is crucial to ensure that the chosen assessor possesses the necessary knowledge and experience in dealing with fire safety in care home environments.
The second essential element of a care home’s fire safety strategy is the emergency plan. Included in this plan should be details of your fire detection system, a process for identifying false alarms, a clear passageway to all escape routes, clearly marked escape routes, emergency doors that open easily, emergency lighting (where needed), a safe meeting point, and a fire safety training plan. Specific to a care home is the need to consider the requirements of people with mobility issues or impairments, who might not be able to escape quickly if there’s a fire. Your emergency plan should be regularly reviewed (preferably every 6 weeks) and personalised to the environment and to any residents with specific needs.
In terms of fire detection, care homes require an L1 classification system. This is a comprehensive and high-level fire detection system offering a wide range of fire detection and alarm devices throughout the building and within each bedroom. These systems should be serviced regularly to ensure that they are in optimum working order in the event that they are needed.
One of the most challenging areas of fire safety for care homes is the evacuation of residents in the event of fire, particularly at night. Providing clear access to escape routes and fire call points should be a priority, as should the use of evacuation aids that are both safe and comfortable for elderly residents. Evacuation sledges, for example, can be designed with padding and ergonomic handles, taking into consideration the specific needs and mobility limitations of the elderly. By providing well-maintained evacuation equipment, care homes can ensure the safety and dignity of residents during emergency evacuations.
A crucial and often overlooked aspect of care home fire safety is staff training. Trained fire safety wardens are essential to ensure the safety of residents and staff alike. Many wardens are trained to implement specialised procedures such as progressive horizontal evacuation, whereby residents who cannot immediately escape are relocated to a nearby fire section on the same floor until help arrives.
Weekly fire and evacuation drills and the testing of fire alarms are also crucial to ensure that staff and residents are aware of what to do in the event of a fire.
In summary, ensuring fire safety in care homes requires a thoughtful and tailored approach. By adopting specific guidance, care homes can implement safety measures that safeguard residents without compromising their quality of life and independence. Customised escape routes, comfortable evacuation aids, L1 fire detection systems, and staff training are key elements in safeguarding residents. By prioritising both safety and a fulfilling living environment, care homes can provide elderly residents with the utmost care and security, allowing them to maintain their independence and enjoy a high quality of life.