Senior housing provides varying degrees of fire safety

Here's an article I wrote this summer, which speaks to the two fires that occurred at senior living facilities in California this week:

101-lifeSafetyCodeOlder adults are more vulnerable to fires compared to the general population; at age 65, people are twice as likely to be killed or injured by fire. That's why it's important for older adults to carefully consider their living environments, and to make sure they're adequately protected from fire and related risks.

While it's often assumed that any residence for people ages 55 and older will include the fire and life safety provisions needed to maximize their safety, that's not necessarily the case.

Depending on how a senior living residence is categorized, it may or may not include the fire safety measures, designs and features that other senior living occupancies such as an assisted living facility incorporate. Anyone either currently living in or considering a move into a residence that is advertised as senior housing or otherwise caters to older adults needs to be aware of what safety measures are — or are not — in place, so they can make an informed decision about where they live.

The National Fire Protection Association developed NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, which serves as the most widely used source for strategies to protect people from fire and related hazards based on building construction and occupancy features.

While NFPA 101 must be used by facilities that fall under certain federal guidelines, buildings identified simply as senior housing have no obligation to follow NFPA 101 unless the code is adopted at the state or local level. Buildings that fall under the federal criteria include assisted living facilities, long-term care and nursing home facilities. Although individual states can and do adopt NFPA 101 for other types of occupancies, Nevada is not among them.

In a section of NFPA 101 called "Residential Board and Care," stringent requirements for assisted living facilities include the installation Of smoke alarm systems and fire sprinkler systems, as well as building construction features that ensure adequate means of egress in the event of a fire or other emergency. The building managers of assisted living facilities are also required to establish emergency evacuation plans and procedures for residents which are supervised by 24 hour on-site staff. Meanwhile, the residents themselves must be evaluated by qualified staff to determine whether or not they're capable of living in an assisted living facility.

However, occupancies referred to as "senior housing" or "senior apartments" oftentimes are simply apartment buildings whose only requirement is that residents are 55 years of age or older. They offer no fire safety provisions specific to the needs of older adults, and the occupancy owners and managers of these residences are not required to follow NFPA 101 unless state or local adoption of the code is in place. This puts older adults living in those residencies at increased fire risk.

Firefighters don't always have the ability to get multiple people, particularly those who are disabled or use medical equipment at home. This challenge is multiplied if the senior housing occupancy consists of multiple stories.

Fortunately, there are many steps people living in senior residences can take on their own to reduce their risk of fire. One should talk with the building manager to learn what, if any, fire protection systems are installed in the building, and to find out about emergency evacuation plans that may be in place. Buildings with multiple stories that are protected with automatic sprinkler systems will be inherently safer than buildings that have no similar protection.

Regardless of what features your building does or doesn't have, NFPA's Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities is a valuable resource that can be used for any specific situation. The Guide, addressing the main evacuation elements needed for the disabled community, can be easily applied to older adult communities and is available online for free. If a building manager doesn't have a plan in place, providing him or her with the guide will give them the information, guidance and resources needed to implement one.

For more information on fire safety, visit For information specifically on fire safety for at-risk populations, visit

This article was originally published in the July issue of Health Care Quarterly/Las Vegas.

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