Retrofit Commercial Fire Sprinklers: Protecting our Seniors

When it comes to protecting vulnerable residents of adult care homes, the difference made by fire sprinkler systems can be easily seen. Buildings where the elderly reside require more safety measures because of the higher risk. In a crisis, elderly residents may be hampered by illness, limited mobility, the lack of awareness of their surroundings, or just the inability to manage the escape routes.

Several places in North America have enacted fire sprinkler requirements and should serve as a model to all governments looking to protect their seniors.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples to pull from that demonstrate why increased fire protection standards are needed for buildings where the residents need extra help when evacuating.

On January 2, a fire at Villeray seniors’ residence in Montreal left one dead. Residents were trapped on their balconies and had to be rescued by the fire department with portable ladders. Three residents were placed under observation at the hospital for smoke inhalation. The building did not have fire sprinklers.

But there are many examples of sprinkler systems saving senior residents.

For example, in August 2016, a fire broke out in a nursing home in Brattleboro, Vt. The sprinkler system was set off by the two-alarm fire and the fire was contained to the laundry room. Fifty-four people were evacuated and no injuries were reported.

In Northern Illinois, sprinkler systems prevented tragedy at residential high-rises twice in a year. In March of 2016, a kitchen fire in an 11-story apartment building was stopped because the building had been retrofitted for sprinklers the previous year. In December, a 10-story senior living facility avoided a major fire as a sprinkler extinguished a fire started when a stovetop burner was left on. No one was injured and it was estimated that $150,000 in damage was prevented.

Although financing is always an issue, North America is working to ensure more positive endings to stories that start with a fire scare.

In 2003, two multiple-fatality nursing home fires in the United States occurred within seven months of each other. As a result of those tragedies, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) updated its code NFPA 101 Life Safety Code. Since 1991, it had included a mandatory sprinkler provision for all newly constructed nursing homes, but after the fires, it was updated to mandate the installation of sprinklers in existing nursing homes.

In 2013, the Ontario government mandated that all retirement homes be updated with automatic sprinklers within three years. In August of 2016, the province’s community and social services ministry agreed to provide $6.5 million to more than 130 facilities to improve fire safety.

In Quebec, senior homes have until December 2020 to install automatic sprinklers. The Quebec regulations stemmed from a 2013 tragedy in which 32 died from a fire at a L’Isle -Verte seniors’ residence. In 2015, the government set aside $115.9 million in subsidies over five years to help pay for the upgrades.

Shortly after NFPA 101 (2006 edition) had been updated, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) initiated adopting the code provision from the NFPA as a federal law. The final rule from CMS was published in 2008 and nursing homes were given until 2013 to complete the retrofit installation.

According to the NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 6,240 structure fires in or on healthcare properties per year from 2006-10 and 46 percent of those fires were at nursing homes. Annually, these fires averaged 171 civilian injuries, six civilian deaths and $52.1 million in direct property damage. Most of the deaths (88 percent) and two-thirds (65 percent) of the fire injuries in healthcare properties during this four-year period occurred in nursing homes.

The most positive statistic is that 83 percent of all nursing home fires were limited to the object of origin. Only 3 percent extended beyond that (Source: NFIRS 5.0).

According to the NFPA, sprinklers were present in 55 percent of reported healthcare fires and the direct property damage per fire was 61 percent lower in properties with wet pipe sprinklers than in properties with no automatic extinguishing equipment.

Complying with the latest life safety regulations can be challenging in terms of costs and logistics, especially for existing buildings with occupants.  Previously, a major fire sprinkler retrofit could have forced an entire building or, at minimum, a floor or wing to shut down during installation of a fire sprinkler system.  BlazeMaster® Pipe and Fittings, however, make retrofits more efficient from both a cost and time standpoint. BlazeMaster® piping systems are joined with a fast, easy and safe installation process, which minimizes disruption.

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