Maximum precaution: Fire safety in aged care facilities

by FM Media
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Statcom Systems’ TAD JUNG provides a comprehensive look into all the issues that need to be addressed in relation to fire safety in aged care facilities.

Regulatory reform in building and fire safety quite often only becomes an imperative soon after a major incident has resulted in the loss of lives. The aftermath of the tragic loss of 10 lives in the New South Wales suburb of Quakers Hill in November 2011 is testimony to how governments always seem to react once an adverse incident has taken place. In this instance, the regulators have identified the lack of sprinklers as being a contributory factor to the loss of so many lives.
No one can argue. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that points to sprinklers being able to limit the loss of life and property if a similar incident were to occur. But, are sprinklers the only safety measure that legislators should be focused on so soon after this tragedy?
In Victoria, following the inquest into the Kew Residential Services fire in 1996, the State Coroner, Graeme Johnstone, noted in his summary that apart from there being unsatisfactory fire protection hardware, “inadequate maintenance and very real weaknesses in emergency staff training, evacuation training, evacuation procedures, communication and safety protocols” were also factors to be considered in this tragedy.
In Queensland, soon after the Childers Backpacker Hostel fire, the inquest showed that the loss of life could have been minimised had the installed smoke detection and alarm system been functioning at the time, and had the paths of egress to exits not been impeded by beds against doorways. In this instance routine maintenance and housekeeping issues were clearly to blame.
It’s time to look at all the issues that needs to be addressed in relation to fire safety in residential aged care facilities and to not be side-tracked by the emotive issues still present from the recent tragedy in New South Wales.

Recent studies have found that there will be approximately 600 aged care facilities in New South Wales affected in one way or another by the new legislation brought down by the NSW Government in relation to automatic sprinklers needing to be retrofitted to these facilities. The cost to a typical 80-bed facility located in the metro area of a major city is expected to be approximately $250,000. In country areas, with low water pressures and limited suitable tradespeople, the figure could rise to as high as $400,000.
A common sense approach will have to be adopted by the regulators in NSW. Even with the three- to four-year transition period, there will be substantial financial pain felt by the country’s aged care operators in particular. If the government is to avoid having large numbers of these facilities closed down, financial assistance will need to be provided to these operators.
For those that are only now embarking on the prospect of retrofitting sprinklers, the following steps will need to be considered:

  • how will the funds be appropriated and from whom
  • a suitable fire safety consultant will need to be engaged
  • a sprinkler design will need to be prepared
  • a building permit will first need to be sought
  • a specification will be needed for a request for quotation (RFQ) or tender
  • calls for tenders or RFQs will have to be sent to competent sprinkler installers
  • the tender should be awarded to a company based on best value principles, and
  • on completion, a certifier to issue the occupancy certificate will be required.

While this is all happening, however, how will the facility function during the retrofitting works? Can residents be moved to another facility owned by the same operator? Can the residents be moved temporarily to other areas of the same facility while building works are in progress? Will the residents need to be moved to temporary non-residential care facilities that may apply to a low-care facility only? The residents and their families will surely understand and sympathise with the operator of the facility, but there will nevertheless be substantial disruption to both operator and residents alike.

There can be no denying the benefits of automatic sprinkler systems. Victoria has not had a single death due to fire at a residential care facility since its sprinkler legislation was introduced in 2002. This could, however, just as easily be the result of much stricter requirements for automatic smoke detection and alarm systems across a wider range of building classifications.
The early detection of smoke is crucial to the success of any emergency management plan. Early warning of impending danger is crucial to a speedy evacuation. A properly functioning smoke detection and alarm system, permanently connected to the fire brigade, plus an effective intercommunication system that can make residents aware of what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency are also crucial to the success of a speedy evacuation.
Smoke detection systems must never be switched off or put into bypass mode for any reason other than for maintenance and only for a very short period of time. If the system remains faulty overnight, an effective emergency management plan that can provide the same level of fire safety protection as the system that was disarmed must be put into immediate action.

An installed fire detection and alarm system is of no use to anyone when it has been turned off or if it is left in a faulty state. It must be ensured that a competent and fully qualified fire services technician keeps the fire safety measures on-site in an operating condition at all times. Familiarity with the requirements for the proper inspection, testing and maintenance of fire protection equipment as outlined in the Australian Standard AS1851 is imperative. The engagement of external fire safety measures consultants to monitor and report on the work carried out by fire services companies is recommended.
In each Australian state, there are differing requirements for annual reporting on fire safety measures maintenance. In Victoria, each building owner must prepare and sign an annual essential safety measures report while, in New South Wales, an annual fire safety statement must be prepared and sent to both the local council and the fire commissioner. The other states have similar requirements.
In addition to the requirements noted above, there is also an additional requirement for the residential aged care operator to send a fire safety exception notice to the Department of Health and Ageing whenever there are incidents of non-compliance relating to fire safety. Failure to report would be treated as a very serious breach under the Aged Care Act 1997.

The Quakers Hill and Childers Backpackers fires were both started by an arsonist. We cannot legislate against criminal misbehaviour, but we can ensure that we keep the potential of a fire to a minimum by keeping items that may ignite away from items that can burn. In a residential aged care facility, the most important place to focus on is residents’ rooms.
Typical sources of ignition found in residents’ rooms are electrical goods, heaters – electrical, hydraulic and gas – and reading lamps, battery operated goods, and split system air-conditioning units. Typical sources of combustion include bed linen, towels, pillows, mattresses, couches and curtains; newspapers and magazines; and cleaning products, spray products and paints.
Electrical goods must be routinely tagged and tested to minimise the likelihood of fire or sparks, and items such as bed linen must meet the appropriate fire indices ratings.

In the event of a smoke alarm sounding, decisions will need to be made very quickly on whether to move residents who are perceived to be in danger or to evacuate the building. With frail and elderly, this can become a very difficult process and must be handled with speed and care.
A clearly thought out and documented emergency management plan addressing every conceivable likely event is a must. The likelihood of the emergency event happening at any time during the day, week or holiday periods, and on any shift, must also be included.
In order to be able to speedily evacuate the residents, the source of the smoke must be identified as quickly as possible. Familiarity with the fire alarm systems and the fire alarm panel is crucial to being able to identify the source of the fire. Many valuable minutes will be lost if the fire brigade is purely relied upon to locate the source of the fire.

In the harmonised occupational health and safety laws, it is a requirement to have properly written emergency response procedures manuals in place. Generic procedures manuals that do not consider each site’s specific circumstances are not acceptable. The recent revision to the Australian Standard AS3745 should be adopted by all facilities. Each manual should contain:

  • a summary of the site layout
  • fire safety measures present and photographic examples of each category of fire equipment
  • evacuation procedures for all likely emergency events
  • a training register that identifies all fire wardens and their assistants, and
  • evacuation floor diagrams for all areas of the facility.

In Tasmania, workplace emergency response procedures manuals must be provided to the local fire brigade for their assessment and approval.
Each site must have clearly labelled and properly prepared evacuation floor diagrams, which must show paths of egress out from each area of the building and the location of all fire equipment. Each diagram must identify the main and secondary assembly points to meet in the event of an emergency. Evacuation diagrams are typically A3 in size as a minimum.

The ability of a staff member to be able to respond to any emergency will depend largely on the competency of the staff member and the training they have received specific to the circumstances in that facility. In the case of a fire, there are several situations that staff members must be prepared and properly trained for. Questions to ask include:

  • does every staff member know how to use a fire blanket or an extinguisher and which type to use
  • does every staff member know how to unfurl a hose reel and turn the nozzle onto the fire
  • does the warden know how to identify the zones in which alarms are shown on a fire panel
  • has the warden and their assistants received proper training in emergency response procedures
  • does the chief warden have a readily accessible evacuation pack filled with a torch, whistle, horn/hooter, first aid kit, list of residents and staff, and instructions
  • has the warden received follow-up training
  • does all training meet the requirements of the Building Fire Safety Regulation if the facility is in Queensland; have fire safety officers been appointed (if applicable), are training registers kept up-to-date and have all new staff undergone initial training within one month of starting
  • has a properly convened emergency control organisation (ECO) been established with all wardens and their assistants identified and trained
  • has the ECO met at least each six months or more depending on the size of the facility, and
  • have wardens and their assistants received warden training in emergency response procedures?

In addition, regular evacuation training and exercises must be carried out. These should be undertaken over a number of sessions to accommodate all staff, no matter which shift they work on.

Tad Jung is the managing director of Statcom Systems.

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