Fire Safety Is Life Safety
By Don Epp, SARC Facility Planner
There has been a lot of talk in the sector recently about fire safety, and here’s why: On January 1st, 2018 Saskatchewan adopted National Building Code (NBC) 2015 and National Fire Code (NFC) 2015 into law.
The changes to fire safety and fire sprinklers requirements affect group homes throughout the province. Since the requirement for fire sprinklers in group homes with one to five occupants (1-5 OIC) was removed in 2016 the emphasis changed from fire suppression to fire prevention. Homes with six to ten occupants (6-10 OIC) and at least one person not capable of self-preservation are required to have fire sprinklers before March 31, 2019. Additional fire safety requirements for group homes (1-5 OIC) are required to be implemented before September 30, 2019.
Being deliberate and conscientious about fire safety is one way to ensure a safe home for the people who live there and the staff who support them. This involves assessing the risks and specific hazards present within your environment, installing appropriate fire safety measures, and preparing an emergency plan that addresses fire safety specifically.
The best way to minimize the risk of fire is to take the threat seriously and put in place fire prevention measures. Below are some of the “hot spots” in a typical house where a fire would most likely start.
Cooking: Did you know that cooking is the leading cause of structural fires in Canada? According to the National Fire Information Database (NFID), 33% of all house fires can be attributed to unsafe cooking practices such as unattended cooking or frying with grease (NFID, 2017,12). Most often cooking fires can be avoided by practicing safe cooking techniques.
- Use a timer if you need to be away from the stove or oven.
- Keep a lid close by if you are frying; it can be used to cover the pan if the grease starts to smoke. Do not move the pan; cover it and turn off the stove.
- Keep clothing, kitchen utensils, towels, oven mitts and packaging material a safe distance away from the hot stove element.
- Avoid overheating food in the microwave as some foods can create harmful smoke.
Open flames: Almost ¼ of all fires in Canada are caused by open flames from materials such as cigarettes and candles. The key to avoiding an open flame fire is to properly dispose of these materials.
- Smoking should occur outside the home. Cigarettes and other smoking materials should be placed in a non-combustible container.
- Candles are great on birthday cakes (in supervised settings) but left unattended they can be extremely dangerous. Battery operated candles are a great alternative for providing ambiance.
- Heating Equipment, including portable space heaters, are responsible for 14% of all fires in Canada.
Best practices for fire prevention:
- Keep flammable materials at least a meter away from any space heater or electric baseboard heater.
- Avoid pushing beds and bedding against any wall with an electric baseboard heater.
- The best option is to always use a heater that automatically turns off when tipped over.
Arcing: Arcing in electrical equipment can produce a spark and enough heat to start a fire (arcing equipment starts 11% of fires in Canada.) Arcing often occurs when there are loose connections or damaged electrical wires. Extension cords, worn out switches, loose plugs and damaged cords can heat up wires and sometimes cause a spark. The following are a few safety devices recommended to protect a home or facility from unintentional arcing.
- Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters – arc fault plug-ins (or circuit breakers) are a code requirement in new homes. These can be easily installed in existing homes. These plug-ins act like circuit breakers and shut off electricity to the plug if unintentional arcing occurs.
- Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters – GFCIs prevent electric shock when an electric device gets wet (coffee maker, curling iron, jetted tub …). GFCIs are a code requirement in areas within 6 feet of a sink and other areas that are prone to getting wet. GFCIs are easy to install, and every bathroom and kitchen countertop plug is recommended to have these for added safety.
- Tamper Resistant Plugs – prevent non-electrical items from being inserted into a plug-in slot. All plug-ins will be required to be tamper-resistant in new homes in 2019.
- Lighting – consider changing incandescent or halogen bulbs to LED lighting. LED lighting has lower energy consumption and offers quality light without the high temperatures associated with traditional incandescent and halogen bulbs.
Appliances and household equipment: Almost 1/10th (7%) of fires in Canada start due to appliances and household equipment. The most common source of structure fires is clothes dryers. It important to clean dryer vent pipes regularly, as clothing lint is extremely flammable. Additionally, rigid metal pipes are always recommended instead of flexible plastic venting pipe as the best option for dryer venting. Other causes of house fires stem from sources outside the house and other electrical equipment. 11% of house fires in Canada start externally due to lightning and fires spreading from other sources (i.e. grass fires, forest fires, etc.).
Knowing where a fire could start in a home will help with implementing safety measures and help you to establish a fire prevention plan.
Fire sprinklers are a major life safety device that is proven to increase evacuation times, save lives and reduce property damage. As part of a comprehensive fire prevention plan and strategy, larger group homes are required to install fire sprinklers. Although not mandatory for smaller group homes, fire sprinklers are recommended as well.
Here are some facts about fire sprinklers in residential settings from the National Fire Protection Association’s 2017 report analyzing the effectiveness and reliability of fire sprinklers (NFPA, 2017).
- Fire sprinklers are activated by heat. Only the sprinkler closest to the fire will spray water. “Roughly 85% of the time, only one sprinkler activates during a fire”.
- Sprinklers provide life safety. Sprinklers activate quickly and provide more time to escape.
- Sprinklers reduce the possibility of flashover (the spread of fire) and reduce the amount of toxic smoke from synthetic building materials and furniture.
- Sprinklers reduce property damage as they use one-tenth the number of water firefighters would use. Reduced property damage equates to less clean-up time, less run-off, less waste removal to the landfill and less atmospheric pollution. These savings can be attributed to fire sprinklers.
- Sprinklers are activated quickly, which also helps maintain the structural integrity of the building for firefighters when they arrive.
- In homes with sprinklers, fires were kept to the room of origin 97% of the time. The fire did not spread.
The Government of Canada in conjunction with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) provides extensive resources and materials on preparing an emergency fire plan for people experiencing disability. Resources can be found below through:
- The Government of Canada: Planning For Safety – Evacuating People Who Need Assistance In An Emergency
- The National Fire Protection Association: Emergency Activation Guide for People Experiencing Disabilities
Smoke inhalation is the cause on the majority of fire-related deaths. Modern construction and many household furnishings contain numerous synthetic materials, which create toxic smoke when burned. Plywood, flooring, furniture, plastics all produce harmful smoke.
In “open-concept” homes this smoke can easily be dispersed throughout the home in minutes. During a fire and with the danger of smoke it is important to evacuate the house as quickly as possible. Careful planning and practice will help increase the efficiency and effectiveness of getting everybody safely out of the house. Emergency planning for people experiencing disability can be enhanced by considering four elements of evacuation planning:
Notification: How are the residents and staff notified if there is a fire? (The focus here is on a fire, but note that emergency planning will look different for each type of anticipated emergency – tornado, flood, intruder, etc.) Are all the smoke and CO alarms functional and installed in the appropriate place? Can everyone hear the alarms? Would some people benefit from strobe lighting in addition to the alarm? There are also “tactile alarms”, vibrating smoke alarms that have a pad that could be placed under a pillow and are activated during an alarm.
Wayfinding: Where is the way out? Does everybody know where the nearest (safest) exit is? Exits in a house must be unobstructed, kept free of clutter and open freely (easy to open door handles and free of ice and snow). Are the evacuation plans posted in the house up to date and do they contain appropriate information? Will someone new to the house (firefighter) be able to understand the evacuation plan?
Use of the Way: Can the person get out by themselves? Do they need a mobility device? Do they need assistance? The plan must consider the needs of each person living in the house.
Assistance: What kind of assistance is needed for a safe evacuation? Is verbal prompting enough to guide someone to the safest exit? Will someone need minor physical prompts (offering an arm for support, opening a door, guiding a wheelchair), or will someone need major physical effort in evacuating the house (using a transfer lift to assist someone to get in their wheelchair)? How many people are required to offer the assistance needed? How does the plan change for nighttime?
An emergency plan does not happen overnight. It involves forethought and discussion on what is needed for each person living in the home, who will do the required tasks as well as what happens once everyone is safely outside the building. Training of staff is required so that all staff know what is required to safely evacuate everyone from the building.
Once a plan is in place it needs to be practiced. Fire drills are important and are required monthly. Residents and staff both need to react to the alarm and know what to do and where to go in the shortest amount of time possible. The more times the fire evacuation plan is practiced and reviewed the quicker the response time becomes. Fire sprinklers, fire prevention, and an emergency plan all combine to increase the fire safety and life safety for everyone involved.
For more information regarding fire safety, including planning, prevention, and recommendations please contact Don Epp, Facility Planner, at firstname.lastname@example.org.