Fire management is crucial for care home safety

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With figures showing that nearly 5,000 elderly residents are living in ‘unsafe’ care homes, and 135 residential care homes across the UK branded as fire hazards by fire service inspectors, the importance of creating a thorough and effective fire management plan is crucial to safeguard the future of any business in the care sector.

Mark Gibbons, managing director of MAGG Group, a health and safety company specialising in corporate fire planning, explains the true dangers of fires, and how pitfalls in current plans, or out of date ones, could have costly – and potentially fatal – consequences. Although the numbers of fires have decreased in recent years, some businesses are still at risk, with owners not often understanding or considering the real repercussions of a blaze at their premises. Not only can property be damaged and the subsequent down-time have a direct impact on profits, but more importantly, the welfare of residents, employees, contractors and visitors is at huge risk Fire management is crucial for care home safety if adequate plans aren’t in place to deal with a fire.

A recent incident at a care home in Croydon is a prime example. The business was fined almost £70,000 last year for putting its elderly residents at risk, after London Fire Brigade’s inspectors identified a number of key failings, including a blocked fire exit and inaccessible staircases. No matter the size, scale or type of organisation, fire can affect anyone and at any time, so it’s absolutely crucial that residential care home owners and operators consider and fully prepare for the worst.

The responsible person

It’s the fundamental responsibility of employers, managers and owners of residential care homes to ensure the general safety of their occupants, and especially important in an environment where many vulnerable individuals are in need of additional assistance in the event of a fire. To adhere to the Fire Safety Order, the owner or occupier – or indeed anyone who has control of the premises – will be appointed the ‘responsible person’. There may be more than one – in which case they have to cooperate and coordinate with each other. Ultimately, it will be the ‘responsible person’ that could face charges and a possible maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if there’s proven to be negligence or ignorance should the worst happen and fatality occur as the result of a fire. The responsible person(s) will be able to appoint one or more ‘competent persons’ who will have the duty of ensuring anything fire safety related is dealt with and that it adheres to the Fire Safety Order. This includes ensuring systems are put in place to minimise any risks, fire plans are produced and briefed to all employees and residents, as well as identifying any people who are at special risk. These action points will need to identify at the very least what they need to do in the event of a fire, the locations of escape routes and exits, whether stairs or lifts will be in use, and where the fire assembly point is located outside the building.

Use checklists

There are many things competent and responsible people have to think about with fire planning, and these can often seem overwhelming – particularly in such a complex and regulated industry as residential care – but there are many checklists available to make it less daunting and much more manageable. By law, they need to undertake a fire risk assessment to establish any potential hazards and take necessary actions to reduce the risk and chances of harm, and agree and put in place precautions or processes to ensure people are as safe as possible.

Understand the causes

One of the most important things for anyone involved in fire management is to become familiar with what fires actually are and understand the main constituents and causes. This includes establishing the potential sources of ignition within the home and the presence of any potential fuel and oxygen, so that they can be kept apart wherever possible. For example, in a residential care home setting, the main contributors may be cooking equipment, electrics, lighting equipment, as well as smoking materials including matches, lighters and cigarettes.

Three ways a fire can spread

In addition to knowing how fires start, it’s important to know how they can spread. There are essentially three ways a fire can spread, including convection, which is the most dangerous and which causes the largest number of injuries and deaths. This can happen when a fire starts in an enclosed space and becomes trapped, with the air heating to a very hot temperature and spreading in all directions, through any gaps, holes and ceilings. There is also conduction – where the fire will follow the heat, such as conductible materials like metal – and radiation, where the heat from a fire can be absorbed by combustible materials and cause them to heat up and ignite.

Remember the non-regular visitor

Care homes naturally receive many visitors – the most regular being those coming to see relatives. But there are others who perhaps aren’t as familiar with the individual home’s fire plans who need considering, including agency, medical and temporary staff, contractors, those working unsociable hours such as cleaners and ancillary staff, as well as maintenance and grounds staff. It is any care home operator’s mission to provide residents with a friendly, caring place they can call home and where they are safe, as well as to ensure the welfare and safety of its employees. But with a number of cases in the news recently highlighting just how small errors or misjudgements can result in huge repercussions, it’s vital to always be mindful about what could go wrong. The vast majority of homes are already well prepared and meet the Fire Safety Order’s requirements. But with fire fighting equipment, emergency lighting and signs and notices playing crucial roles in the event of a fire, and which naturally have to be regularly serviced and checked to ensure they are all in the correct working conditions, they may be an unwelcome addition to an already large ‘to do’ list. Various laws are also being regularly reviewed and becoming familiar with these can be a challenge in itself. But fire safety has to be a core element in any owner’s strategy, and the appointment of a third party provider can help alleviate these pressures, allowing the home operator to focus primarily on the care provided and commercial aspects of the business. Not only can checklists and audits be undertaken as they need, but they can also take on the maintenance and servicing of equipment as required by law, providing complete peace of mind for the business owner. For further information and advice, email info@magggroupltd.com

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