The essential guide to fire safety in care homes.
Care homes, unlike other premises, have significant responsibilities and steps to undertake when it comes to fire safety. With vulnerable occupants who need the maximum amount of time possible to evacuate a building, there’s strategies and precautions every care home’s ‘Responsible Person’ needs to be aware of.
We recently came across a customer who, before they approached us, didn’t have a fire alarm maintenance contract. Without fire alarm maintenance, they had no way of detecting if their system was faulty, no one to check and change batteries (which, if left to leak can ruin the devices and incur unnecessary costs), and no one to check the operation of the remote signalling/monitoring (which informs the fire brigade the alarm’s been set off).
Plus, they’d have no written evidence with a report/certificate to say they had fire alarm testing and maintenance carried out, which would result in a prosecution if there was a fire.
Back in 2017, two lives were lost at a care home in Hertfordshire, which resulted in the company being fined £175,000 following five charges of non-compliance with fire safety legislation.
Since then, the London Fire Brigade found that 101 out of 177 care homes needed to be issued with a formal notice to address fire safety concerns. 45% of these were found to have an insufficient Fire Risk Assessment, whilst 14% were found to have poor emergency planning.
So many fires are preventable.
First, let’s look at common hazards:
Fire Doors Left Open
Fire doors are designed to withstand and contain a fire to keep it from spreading, providing enough time for evacuation and for the fire brigade to turn up to extinguish it, whilst also limiting the damage.
Leaving a fire door open and/or obstructed means that if a fire door was to break out, it can’t do what it was designed to do!
In all buildings, walkways and fire exits must be kept clear, but there’s even more consideration to be taken in a care home. For example, even a rug can pose a risk as a wheelchair can get caught on it during an evacuation, among other health and safety considerations. Even fire extinguishers (even though they’re a fire safety precaution) can be a hazard if they’re placed in way which obstructs a hallway and easy movement.
Many false alarms and actual fires are started in the kitchen, where food preparation is taking place all day. Extra care should be taken to ensure nothing is left on or unattended, and that any flammable liquids, such as oil, are not left exposed.
Residents who use oxygen machines must be monitored and staff should employ safety procedures, including keeping the apparatus away from any sources of heat, such as radiators, and contamination.
Now for the fire safety strategies:
1. Have an Up-to-Date Fire Risk Assessment
A Fire Risk Assessment is a legal requirement for any premises containing 5 or more people at any given time. It’s an evaluation of your premises’ fire hazards and the strategies currently in place to prevent or fight a fire in the event that there is one. With this, you can identify changes that need to be made which currently pose a threat to fire safety. A Fire Risk Assessment must reflect your building in its current state. So, if your care home has undergone a renovation, you will require a new assessment.
2. Have an Accurate Zone Chart
Your zone chart must be kept next to your fire alarm panel, which is usually kept near the entrance in an area which can be easily accessed by the Fire Brigade. The zone chart is a floor plan of your building and a visual aid for both your site manager and the Fire Brigade to know where the alarm has triggered in the building.
For example, if your fire alarm panel is saying the alarm has been triggered in Zone 3, you need only look at the zone chart to see that Zone 3 is marked as the kitchen, telling you exactly where to go and approach with caution.
3. Set out an Emergency Plan and Evacuation Strategy
Having an evacuation strategy and a process you follow in the event of a fire, and all emergencies, is crucial. There should be a system in place which is universally known among staff members so that it can be carried out quickly and with confidence should the moment require it.
A fire emergency plan involves:
…Knowing how to identify a false alarm
…How to raise the alarm of fire
…Knowing who calls the Fire Brigade and how to liaise with emergency services
…Knowing all staff members’ responsibilities in the event of a fire
…Knowing how to alert visitors in the event of a fire
…Knowing all escape routes
…Setting an assembly point (usually the car park)
…Understanding how to evacuate residents calmly and as quickly as possible, including those with disabilities and restricted movements
Care homes need to identify the individual requirements of every resident (known as a PEEPs plan or Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan) to ensure that they are catered to in an efficient manner, without causing unnecessary stress, in the event of a fire-related emergency. For instance, deaf and hard-of-hearing residents, and/or blind and visually impaired residents, will need extra care and consideration in the event of an emergency.
4. Practice Fire Drills Regularly
This is your emergency plan and evacuation strategy in practice. Do this at least twice a year (preferably once a quarter) to ensure all staff members and residents know the drill, giving everyone the best chance of getting out safety as quickly and as calmly as possible.
5. Carry out Staff Fire Safety Training
In addition to the above, it’s important that staff are trained by a fire safety professional to ensure they’re implementing best practices when it comes to both fire prevention and evacuation strategies. Specialist EVAC training can be set up to help staff members in the evacuation of disabled or vulnerable persons. Fire Safety Training gives you a well-rounded understanding of the theory of fire, how to be safe day-to-day and what to do in the event a fire breaks out.
This training is important for your designated fire wardens/marshals, who have specific responsibilities in the event of a fire, however due to the sensitive, high-risk nature of the care home – all staff members should have Fire Safety Training.
6. Install an L1 Fire Alarm System using a BAFE SP203-1:17 Certified Company
An L1 fire alarm detection system offers the highest possible level of cover you can get with a fire alarm. Every single room above 1m² (which is the size of a big cupboard!) requires a smoke detector.
As part of the fire alarm design, manual call points should be no more than 45m apart, located next to each exit, with at least one on each floor of the building.
The alarm should also be loud enough for everyone to hear it. Sleeping areas, for example, are required to have the minimum of 75 decibels (dB), whilst the areas throughout the rest of the care home should be at least 45dB.
It is advised that an addressable alarm system is installed, as opposed to a non-addressable system, as it provides extra control and precision when it comes to identifying areas where the alarm has been set off. For example, a non-addressable (or conventional) system will merely label the zones, which could contain a number of rooms; if your alarm panel specified ‘Zone 2’ which is the second floor, you would only know that the alarm has been triggered on the second floor. An addressable system, however, will specify beyond this with each detection device being assigned the exact area it sits within; so, if your fire alarm panel states ‘Zone 2, Room 315’, you know the exact room that’s triggered the alarm. The L1 system is already designed to give the maximum amount of notice that a fire has broken out, so an addressable system makes this process even faster when it comes to identifying and tackling a fire.
The system should be checked daily and tested weekly (preferably at the same time), with all tests being recorded in your fire safety log book. The test should, ideally, test a different call point each week, ensuring it’s working efficiently and that the alarm is sounding throughout the building. Any faults which are found should be reported to your fire alarm maintenance company immediately.
It is important to trust a competent specialist that is independently audited with the implementation of your building’s life safety system. BAFE is the independent registration body for fire protection companies. If a company is SP203-1 certified, then they are approved for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection systems, giving you peace of mind that you’ve had a professional installation by a reliable provider.
7. Have Fire Alarm Monitoring
Fire alarm monitoring or alarm signalling sends a message to a designated keyholder and/or the Fire Brigade to alert them that the alarm has been triggered. As care homes are occupied by staff on a 24/7 basis, the need to alert specific keyholders is not as necessary as a building that is left vacant overnight; however the need to evacuate the premises requires extra vigilance, so having the alarm set to immediately call the Fire Brigade ensures they’re notified as soon as it’s gone off, and not once a staff member has noticed and called 999.
8. Have a Fire Alarm Maintenance Contract
Your fire alarm maintenance company will be able to support you with technical support, inspecting and resolving any faults which show up, and carrying out bi-annual maintenance to ensure the efficiency and longevity of the system.
It is a legal requirement to have fire alarm maintenance and importantly, written evidence to support that you’ve had fire alarm maintenance. This, as well as your fire alarm testing, should be recorded in your log book, as well as having a report/certificate issued by your provider after each six month visit.
Again, as with your installation, it’s important to ensure you’re trusting a competent and reliable company with your fire alarm maintenance that is accredited by British Approvals for Fire Equipment (BAFE).
9. Have Adequate Signage and Emergency Lighting
Emergency lighting is designed to light your way through an escape route in the event of a power outage and emergency, such as a fire. Signage indicating the escape routes are also important to make it clear to staff, visitors and residents where they need to be heading in the event of a fire-related emergency. Emergency lighting is designed to last without power for 3 hours.
As well as installing adequate emergency lighting, it’s important to have a maintenance contract for this in addition to your fire alarm, on an annual basis. This should be logged in your fire safety log book.
10. Install the Correct Fire Extinguishers & Have Them Serviced Annually
It’s important to ensure you have the right number of fire extinguishers, the right type of fire extinguishers and the correct placing of fire extinguishers for optimum fire safety. These must also be serviced on an annual basis and replaced/refilled when necessary, whilst staff members should be taught how to operate them when they undertake Fire Safety Training.
11. Have Your Fire Doors Tested Quarterly
Fire doors offer a form of resistance in the event of a fire and therefore need to remain closed at all times and be tested on a regular basis to ensure their design and supporting construction maintain their efficiency. Any defects should be reported to the maintenance company as soon as possible.
Considerations for fire door testing include checking that the intumescent and/or cold smoke seals are in a good condition, in addition to the door closers and hinges.
It is possible to connect your fire alarm to your fire doors using magnetic retainers, enabling them to automatically close if the fire alarm triggers. You can achieve the same effect with a battery-operated system which is not connected to your alarm system; either way it is handy way of enabling detection and response for an added layer of protection in your care home.
There’s a lot to take in here, but it’s important to know your responsibilities.
We provide ‘All-in-One’ maintenance packages for a number of care homes, incorporating all of the above, ensuring premises stay safe and legal.
Need some advice on fire safety in your care home? Call us today on 01277 724 653 and we’ll be happy to help!