By Claire Wright, Head of Training at the Fire Protection Association (FPA)
The severity of fires in UK care homes has been well documented over the last decade. A series of fires in London care homes in 2019 prompted the London Fire Brigade to inspect more than 150 properties, its largest ever audit of care home fire safety. Not only do fires in care homes pose a significant risk to life, especially given the vulnerability of residents, but they also threaten to destroy the homes themselves. The loss of these buildings to fire can have a severe impact on the health and wellbeing of residents.
Care homes are deemed high risk premises, and, unlike other building types, the spe- cific vulnerability level of resi- dents dictates the approach
to fire safety they should take; it is not one-size-fits-all. This also applies to the skills and competency of those responsible for fire safety – whether care home staff or individuals employed to carry out work on behalf of a care home. Here we explore how care home owners and managers should approach fire safety in order to reduce the risks from fires.
KNOWING THE RISKS – THE FOUNDATION OF FIRE SAFETY
Legislation requires every employer to ensure that a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment has been undertaken, and to have put in place general fire safety precautions to ensure the safety of employees and building users. They must identify hazards along with people at risk and implement appropriate control measures. In a care home, people at risk will include service users, staff, visitors, and contractors, but it’s not just the range of building users that impacts fire safety in care homes.
The varying dependency levels of care home residents is the primary reason that a universal approach to fire safety and risk assessment in these buildings is not applicable. For example, there is a significant risk to life posed by vulnerable residents while they sleep, creating challenges around the time taken to evacuate. Some residents may need assistance to exit the building, while others will be able to escape entirely unaided. Therefore, a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment will look at the specific nature of the individuals and the relevant risks and recommend appropriate measures – ranging from fire suppression systems to bespoke evacuation plans.
Taking a person-centred approach, in which controls/measures are implemented for all residents individually, is essential in ensuring that effective arrangements are in place, staff numbers are suitable at all times of the day and night and that all occupants can be evacuated safely in the event of an emergency.
A competent fire risk assessor will identify potentially hazardous sub- stances within the care home. This may include oxygen cylinders, ointments and fuel used in back-up generators. Ensuring the appropriate staff are aware of these risks and have the competency to handle these safely will reduce the risk of fire.
Those carrying out fire risk assessments must also have highly specialised knowledge of the specific risks posed in care homes in order to ensure they are mitigated as far as possible through processes and fire protection and prevention systems. Seeking third party accreditation of contractors is the best way to ensure good practice is followed and that the building or its occupants are not put at unnecessary risk.
GETTING A THOROUGH FIRE STRATEGY IN PLACE
Fire strategies are a fundamental part of a business continuity plan for protecting life and essential property, but in our experience, there isn’t always a robust strategy in place dictating an approach to fire safety. The British Standards Institution document, PAS 911, refers to a fire strategy as providing ‘a clear set of measures encompassing fire precautions, management of fire safety and fire protection.’ It involves the development and implementation of policies that address relevant risks and procedures in line with objectives specific to the business, with an aim to reduce life risk while also protecting business procedures and assets. Although usually developed during the design and construction phase of a new building, this is not always the case. In such circumstances, or for older premises, fire strategies can be developed retrospectively.
PLANNING FOR EVACUATION
The fire strategy and fire risk assessment will also require the development and implementation of an effective fire evacuation plan. This should consider by way of a person-centred assessment, as mentioned above, the people at risk, where they are in the building, the risks that cannot be removed or reduced any further, and the size/layout of the building.
In care homes, as with the risk assessment, the vulnerability levels of residents will affect the fire strategy. The materials used in the construction of the building, alongside the method of construction will also impact the fire strategy plan and other subsequent prevention measures, as was so horrifically evidenced in the Beechmere Care Home fire in mid-2019. So again, it’s essential that a competent individual with specialised knowledge is appointed to develop it.
Finally, a plan is no use at all if staff are not aware of it and are unable to implement it in the event of an emergency. Training of all staff and practice, practice, practice is essential if the risk assessment, fire strategy and the evacuation plan is going to succeed.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, the debate over competency has gained significant momentum. While the subsequent Hackitt review identified a lack of skills, knowledge and experience within the building and construction industry, its recommendations focused predominantly on high rise residential buildings. The issues surrounding competency, however, are true of building types right across the board, none more so than care homes which are responsible for some of the most vulnerable people in society.
For more information, download the FPA’s free Residential Care Home Fire Safety Guide, which provides care home managers and staff with the basic steps that need to be taken to help maintain fire safety standard within a care home at www.thefpa.co.uk/news/fire-safety-advice-and-guidance/residential-care-home-fire-safety-guide