Fire chief Rita Dexter explains how social care staff can minimise risks to older service users
Last year, half the 33 people who died in fires in London were older than 60. Many of them were known to the care-providing authorities. That means advice and practical help could have been offered – and those lives could have been saved.
Mr E was 95 and lived alone in sheltered accommodation. He was unable to walk on his own and spent most of his day seated. He received meals on wheels and domiciliary care four times a day, including lunchtimes. Mr E enjoyed smoking and would do so when his carer was out of the room or after they had visited.
Early one afternoon, Mr E was trying to refill his lighter but, while doing so, triggered a small explosion on his lap. A fire quickly took hold and, unable to stand independently, we believe Mr E was either unable or didn’t have time to put out the flames. When firefighters found him, Mr E was badly burned, the room had filled with smoke and he was beyond help.
The warning signs were clear: Mr E smoked, but was frail. In a fire, he would find it difficult to escape. Despite living in a residential unit for older people the property was not fitted with a sprinkler suppression system.
Social care providers and carers are in a unique position to help the fire and rescue service identify those most at risk from fire and to work with us to prevent people dying or losing their homes unnecessarily.
Five points stand out.
● Everyone should have a smoke alarm fitted.
● Someone who cannot move freely will struggle to escape in a fire. When considering other factors, think about fire escape.
● People who smoke are at greater risk. What support might you give to ensure their choice to smoke is as safe as possible?
● Scorch marks or, worse still, burns on a person are a sign of a near miss. Next time, the person might not be so lucky.
● If someone has lots of clutter around their home a fire may spread more rapidly. It will be harder for the person to escape.
By keeping these things in mind when social workers visit older people and by informing the local fire and rescue service, fires can be prevented and our most vulnerable people protected if they do break out.
Rita Dexter is the deputy commissioner of the London Fire Brigade
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This article is published in the 29 September 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Social care providers can prevent fire tragedies”