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A Fire Safety Plan for Seniors with Limited Accessibility

Making Things Usable, Our Beliefs, Posts

When we were kids, we learned from the three little pigs. Not every idea works. The first two pigs’ ideas were useless against the big bad wolf. Only the third pig, creating a house of bricks, gave them all piece of mind. Today, for seniors with mobility issues living in seniors’ homes, we have a different monster—fire. And, so far, the “solid brick house” concept isn’t adequate for immediate protection from such a threat.

In 2009, after a deadly fire in a seniors’ home in Orillia, a coroner’s inquest examined these types of fires in Ontario. The Ontario government has now mandated installation of sprinkler systems in nursing homes as they can stop the fire monster in its tracks. The problem is that only licenced retirement homes and private care facilities had to comply with installing fire suppression systems within five years. Publicly-owned nursing residences have until 2025! Moreover, not all provinces have followed suit. In Alberta, installing sprinkler systems is a high priority but is difficult to action. The problems of retrofitting cost and ineffective water pressure in some areas mean that change will be in the very distant future.

With the increasing numbers of seniors (given our aging population) requiring housing in seniors’ facilities and waiting lists that currently extend for years, there needs to be another idea for a stopgap measure.

I witnessed, firsthand, the issues at my mother’s nursing home. It was a three-storey structure with two small elevators. To keep the traffic jam of wheelchairs to a minimum on the main floor, those with mobility issues, like my mother, were housed on the second and third floors.

Getting all of the seniors down to the main floor for special activities was a long process with an hour timeline. There is no luxury of time when fighting fire. Without a fire suppression system, the seniors in that home, like many others, are playing a game of Russian roulette. The problem is that they are sure-fire losers (excuse the pun) if a fire starts.

One way to protect more lives would be to house mobile seniors (those who can manage stairs) on the upper floors, leaving those with mobility issues with quick access from the building. However, since mobility issues often cause the move to these homes, there are more mobility-impaired seniors than the first floor could accommodate. This means there would still be a need for some seniors in wheelchairs to live on upper floors, in a vulnerable position.

There is a possible effective way for saving upper floor residents until fire-suppression systems are mandatory everywhere. This technology is readily available and, as a bonus, would remind seniors fleetingly of childhood playground fun: evacuation slides for airplanes. These slides could be retrofitted to a second storey and possibly third storey large window. Of course, assistance from personal care workers is necessary, but this would be a chance for survival, just like the three little pigs of their childhood memories. This idea may sound ridiculous, but we have to take action before 2025! We can’t let our seniors live in buildings that don’t protect them.   Like the pig in the straw house, these homes are no match for fire.

Dianne Pinder

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