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Home Fire Safety for Seniors
Home fires are devastating events that can cause mortality, injury, and property damage. Some populations are more vulnerable to death and injury from residential fires than others. Those that are considered frail, based on age and a measure of vulnerability, are more likely to die in a fire than be injured. Incidents of death are more likely to involve the elderly, ages 65 and older, or the very young, five and under. Children under five made up 7% of home fire deaths, while adults aged 65 and older made up 32% of home fire deaths, making it especially important to consider home fire safety for children, as well as seniors.
Fire Risk Factors for the Elderly
Fires are a frightening possibility for anyone, but there are risks concerning fire and older adults, that may not affect younger generations. Older adults are 2.5 times more likely to die in fires than the overall population.
Slower Reaction Time
As people age, they may undergo cognitive or physical changes that affect their ability to prevent or respond to a fire. Fire safety measures for people with disabilities, or slowed mobility, may makes escape difficult. Seniors may also be at risk due to diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer's, or due to medications and prescriptions that induce drowsiness, disorientation, blurred vision, dizziness, or confusion. These diminished cognitive abilities can play a part in home fires, which can start as seniors get distracted and leave cooking unattended, accidentally leave the stove on, or forget to turn off a heater.
Reduction of the Senses
In addition to mobility, physical changes may also negatively affect the senses that may make fire detection more difficult. This may include:
Vision. The inability to see smoke.
Hearing. The inability to hear fire alarms.
Smell. The inability to smell burning or smoke.
Touch. The inability to detect if something is hot or not.
Inappropriate Use of Common Appliances and Household Items
This may include inappropriate use, or a lack of stove safety for elders. Seniors may use poor cooking methods, forget they are cooking, or attempt to heat the house with the oven. They may also misuse space heaters, placing them too close to other household items, or accidentally knocking them over.
For seniors that live alone, mobility and cognitive limitations may be difficult to overcome without assistance. It is important to stress a solid understanding or map of an escape plan or route with elders that live alone. It is also important for elders that live alone to ensure that all electrical equipment in the house is up-to-date, and that all smoke detectors and fire alarms are equipped with functional batteries.
Smoking is also concerning because cigarette embers can lead to home fires. It is important to practice good behaviors such as always ensuring the embers are completely extinguished. Consider quitting smoking or using deep ashtrays lined with sand or water. Never smoke in bed, and never smoke if there is an oxygen tank present.
Prevention Plans for Seniors
Making a home fire prevention and safety plan ahead of time, and being in control of the safety of the environment before a fire happens, is the surest way to decrease the likelihood of a home fire.
Fireplace and Heating Maintenance and Cleanliness
Indoor fireplaces, wood stoves, and outdoor fireplaces need annual cleaning and inspection for safety. Cracks, weaknesses, or rust in chimney bricks or stove pipes can cause a fire. Soot build-up from burning cardboard or lack of cleaning can also increase the chances for fires. Make sure to utilize fireplace screens to catch embers and ashes when burning fires in a fireplace. Consider replacing wood-burning stoves or fireplaces with electric fireplaces for safety.
Set calendar dates to change out batteries in smoke detectors twice a year. Ensure that the smoke detector can be heard by someone hard of hearing, even without the use of hearing aids. Keep fire alarms in all rooms so seniors can hear them throughout the house. If an elderly person is unable to install or change a smoke detector, contact the local fire department via the National Fire Department Registry for assistance.
Electrical failures are one of the top causes of house fires. Homes with out-of-date electrical systems are at increased risk for fire. Complete regular electrical inspections on a home if:
Your home is 40 years or older;
You purchase a previously-owned home;
Your home has undergone a major renovation;
You have added major new appliances in the last 10 years.
Make sure that all electrical work is performed and inspected by a professional. Routinely check cords, outlets, switches, and appliances for damage. Do not continue to use damaged electrical devices. Do not overload outlets with too many devices.
Ground Floor Living and Automatic Sprinklers
If possible, keep living arrangements and bedrooms for seniors on the first, or ground floor to make an escape in the event of a fire easier. If looking for an apartment or residence with multiple floors, look for one that has an automatic sprinkler system. Automatic sprinkler systems can dramatically reduce heat, flames, and smoke. The home fire death rate was 90% lower in residences that included sprinklers as well as hard-wired smoke alarms.
Escape Proof Doors
Avoid escape-proof doors or complicated locks in residences to keep elderly who wander due to Alzheimer’s or dementia inside. These actions may trap them inside in the event of a fire. Consider using an alarm system that will send alerts when they leave, or GPS systems that can track them if they wander.
Fire Safety Tips for Seniors
Considering that safety for seniors is a high priority in regards to residences, following recommended safety tips might help reduce the opportunity for fire, or reduce the likelihood of injury or death, should one occur. Consider the following fire safety tips:
Cook With Care: Don’t cook with loose dangling sleeves or robes that easily catch fire. Don’t walk away from a stove that is turned on or lit.
Space Heaters Need Space: Make sure space heaters are at least 3 feet away from other household items. Consider purchasing a space heater that is designed to turn off if it gets tipped over
Keep Important Items Handy: Keep eyeglasses, a phone, a whistle handy, or an emergency call button within reach at all times.
Learn How to Put Out Fire on Your Clothing: Many seniors and elderly are not able to perform the STOP, DROP, and ROLL exercise due to physical limitations. Instead, the best alternative is to smother the flames with a nearby coat, blanket, or rug.
Avoid candles: Consider candle fire safety if you choose to burn candles. Candles cause 3% of reported home fires and home fire deaths. They contribute to 6% of home fire injuries, and 5% of direct property damage in home fires. 58% of home candle fires occur because a combustible material was too close to the candle. Consider using electric candles if needed. Always place candles on an uncluttered surface, and 12 inches away from anything that can burn. Never use candles if oxygen is used in the home.
Keep Fire Extinguishers Nearby: A fire extinguisher should be present in every major fire hazard or area, including the kitchen, fireplace, wood stove, and furnace room. It is important, however, not to place the extinguisher in an area too close to potential fire hazards, as it would be difficult to get to, and may cause burns if it gets too hot.
Fire Escape Plans for Seniors
House fire evacuation plans are necessities for people of all ages, but can be modified to specifically address the needs of the elderly. It is important to consider strength, mobility, and ease of route when considering fire escape plans for seniors.
Pre-Plan the Escape Route
Walk through the residence and make a note of all possible exits, including windows. Draw up a floor plan that offers two escape routes per room. Be sure to consider the mobility and movement range of seniors and the elderly in the route. Account for any stairs or multiple floors. Make sure any mobility equipment such as wheelchairs or walkers can make it through escape routes. Consider providing accommodations such as exit ramps and widened doors for ease of access. Make sure doors and hallways are free of furniture and tripping hazards along the route.
Perform Fire Drills
Perform fire drills at least twice a year to make sure seniors know routes to escape by and how to escape alone. Create an “in case of fire” poster that is easily visible and details fire escapes for each room. Consider electing a responsible family member who is assigned to assist the elderly person out of the home in case of fire.
Make Regular Updates and Check-Ins
Regularly check that all windows and doors are able to open from inside the home. Ensure that locks and pins in doors and windows are easily able to open. Contact the local fire department non-emergency line and let them know of any special needs you have for fire escape planning, and ask them to keep your information on file. Check regularly to make sure that the house number is easily visible from the street so that emergency personnel can find your home.