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Nursing Home Fires — Five Recent and  Avoidable Tragedies

Deciding to put a loved one in a nursing home is a very difficult choice. It is emotionally stressful  to place someone who has cared for you under the care of strangers. In addition to medical care and daily sustenance, safety is a big concern.  If a fire occurs in nursing homes, residents are less able to escape than healthy, independent people. To become more aware of the reality of this threat, take a look at summaries of five cases of nursing home fires and the losses suffered by each.

1. Hampton Plaza Fire of 20081

On May 14, 2008, two men were pronounced dead of apparent smoke inhalation following a nursing home fire in Niles, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on the third floor of the Hampton Plaza Nursing Home. Two more were injured of the same cause without life-threatening damage. The fire was believed to have been caused from smoking materials stored in a closet, belonging to two residents who smoked. The fire claimed the lives of two residents who were asleep in bed when the fire broke out in very late evening. Upon the firefighters’ arrival four minutes after being alerted, Deputy Fire Chief Steve Borkowski claimed that, “There was zero visibility in the room”1 already filled with smoke. In this case, the facility was equipped with sprinklers and smoke detectors which worked properly and responded effectively to the fire.

2. Governor’s Creek Health and Rehab Fire of 20082

An afternoon fire broke out in Governor’s Creek Health and Rehabilitation Center in Green Cove Springs, Florida in April of 2008. The fire claimed the lives of one resident and injured five patients and three staff members. The fire is believed to have been caused by the deceased victim smoking in bed while using an oxygen machine, allowing for rapid spread of the flames. The concrete structure of the facility contained the fire to one room, allowing staff members to break windows to ventilate other rooms as patients were evacuated. The fire was isolated mainly to the victim’s bed.

3. Mount Pleasant Fire of 20073

On December 30, 2007, Blues legend Weepin’ Willie Robinson was the victim of a fire at Mount Pleasant Home in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston’s “Elder Statesman of the Blues” also was the victim of a fire in his room resulting from smoking in bed. He knew this was against policy but would forget at times, finally claiming his own life just before the new year. Robinson was found when the fire alarm and sprinklers were set off in the early morning hours.

4. Tula Nursing Home Fire of 20074

In November of 2007, 31 residents were killed in a nursing home fire in the Tula region south of Moscow, Russia. The facility was in violation of numerous fire safety codes, including not having a fire alarm. The rapidly moving flames combined with thick smoke claimed the lives of the victims. The wooden interiors of the brick building encouraged the fire’s quick advancement. A short circuit in a second-floor ceiling lamp was the apparent cause of the fire. Survivors claim that the lamp began smoking before crashing to the ground to spark the initial flames. Some residents who escaped with their lives were able to jump from windows out of desperation, even losing consciousness for a time. The facility had previously been under appeal to be shut down in violation of numerous fire safety rules, including replacing the electrical system which had been deemed a fire hazard.

5. Southern Russia Nursing Home Fire of 20075

A southern Russia nursing home lost 62 residents as the result of a fire in March of 2007. The high death toll is attributed to an incomplete alarm system as well as the sluggish response of a watchman who heard two fire alarms and alerted the nursing home staff prior to notifying the fire department, delaying authorities by approximately 21 minutes. Many of the victims were bed-ridden and unable to escape the smoke and flames invading their rooms. The fire came as the deadliest in Russia in more than 15 years. Home to more than 90 residents, the facility violated 36 fire safety standards. The facility contained insufficient equipment to protect against smoke, and the wooden panels lining each room were not flame-proofed.

Nursing Home Fire Safety Factors

It is impossible to be too particular about to whose care you entrust your loved one. When selecting a nursing home, be sure to include fire safety questions in your inquiry such as:

  • Does the facility use fire-retardant on combustible materials?
  • Does the building meet fire safety code?
  • Does the facility have and maintain adequate fire protection equipment such as fire alarms, sprinklers, and extinguishers?
  • Will the fire department automatically be alerted of a fire in the building?
  • What is the smoking policy of the facility?

Even when all of the fire safety standards are met, there is no guarantee that fires will not ignite or be extinguished before anyone is harmed. In the American instances above, many lives were saved due to the structure of the buildings and the usual quick response of rescue workers. However, even with these assistances, smoke inhalation cannot be remediated if the poisonous gas has already invaded the lungs. In circumstances especially where residents are prone to forgetfulness as in the case of Weepin’ Willie Robinson, fire hazards are always a possiblity. It is far better to prevent fires from starting than to extinguish them afterwards.

Paul Galla, President