‘The most common characteristics of people who die in house fires were over 60, poor mobility and living alone’

A tighter eligibility criteria for social services means families must take responsibility for reducing risks of fire for the elderly relatives they support, says Blair McPherson

Photo: Image Source: Jonathan Hordle, Rex Features
Photo: Image Source: Jonathan Hordle, Rex Features

By Blair McPherson

Within the space of a few days, both my elderly mother and mother-in-law rang up a member of the family, anxious about a “hot plug and a smell of burning”. One lives alone and the other in sheltered housing accommodation, and they are both in their 80s and defiantly independent. Neither of them meet their local authority’s eligibility criteria for help and support.

In my mother-in-law’s case, it was her cleaner who expressed concern when attempting to vacuum behind the TV. A task that involved lifting up a strip of plugs and a pile of cables, which resembled a plate of spaghetti. Differently, my mother had reported a constant bleeping, which could not be the smoke detector “because that hadn’t worked for months!” But it turns out it was, and my brother replaced the battery. 

In 2012 to 2013, 266 people died of house fires and over 10,000 were injured. Of the fatalities, 70 per cent were over the age of 60.

I was not surprised to learn that the most common characteristics of people who die in house fires were over 60, poor mobility and living alone. Cigarettes, drugs and alcohol were also common factors and recent research has revealed the extent of drinking at home among older people and the risk of falls and forgetfulness this can have, especially when alcohol is mixed with medication.

I was also not surprised that in 40 per cent of accidental fires in the home there was no working smoke alarm. Nor was I surprised to learn how often fire investigators report “batteries missing” from smoke alarms. After all that constant bleeping is very irritating.

But what I was surprised about was the number of injuries and deaths where vulnerable people were known to health, social care and housing agencies and yet evidence of near misses had been ignored.

When social services homecare provided support to the most frail elderly people living alone, the fire brigade would have worked closely with staff to raise awareness and reduce risks.

These days being over 80 doesn’t make you eligible for support.

An eligible minority

The minority who do meet the eligibility criteria may have been allocated a personal budget to buy their own care support and could be paying a neighbour, friend or relative to provide help. This individual may be relying on their “common sense” rather than any training around fire awareness or like my mother-in-law’s cleaner, may not see it as their responsibility to do more than point out the risk.

Where homecare staff are providing support, it is likely to be a small private agency with a high turnover of staff and a reluctance to spend money on training staff who are likely to leave as soon as something better paid comes along.

It is clear from the annual reports of fire brigades that they are very concerned about the number of vulnerable people dying in house fires and the deaths and injuries that could have been prevented. Each brigade is trying to raise awareness with partner agencies, but in the modern  public sector if you want something to happen you have to get commissioners to write it into the contracts of providers. As a greater share of the burden of care falls on families so does the responsibility for reducing the risk of fire for our elderly relatives.

Blair McPherson is a former director of community services, author and commentator on the public sector www.blairmcpherson.co.uk 

More from Community Care

2 Responses to ‘The most common characteristics of people who die in house fires were over 60, poor mobility and living alone’

  1. Edna September 22, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    A period of rapid /unstable economic change and increasing state interventions in th lives of vulnerable elders living alone has led to many families being unable to ‘keep an eye out’ for their relatives due to the long distances involved, their long working hours or hold the not uncommon view that the state has this duty through the taxes paid to provide services. Only now is it increasingly clear that protecting the very old, aside from warehousing them in institutions, is not going to work where elders remain fiercely independent. It is indeed tragic that fires take lives, especially if they can be avoided. But a fall at home can kill the elderly too.

    Social work staff seem to think that in a complex and increasingly isolating society that they should be able to ‘police’ every possible social danger.

    This is impossible in the highly unequal society with a desire by public servants for control over others.

    This article does not square well with the views held by others, e.g. a medic in a Telegraph article), where a view is held that vulnerable elderly people should be allowed to die, (a view I find abhorrent as someone who looks out for very aged P’s interests).

  2. Chrissie September 23, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    I think this is a comprehensive summary of the fire risk in the community. However, we know there are huge risks out there and these are increasing with budget cuts and stretched services…..what is the solution?