Having effective fire safety arrangements in place is a vital element in the running of any residential care home where elderly or dependent residents are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of fire.

Here are nine top fire brigade safety tips for residential settings.

1. Ensure fire risk assessments are up to date

Fire safety regulations (such as the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in England and Wales and the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005) require that the person responsible for a residential care property completes a fire risk assessment and keeps it up to date. See here for a Fire Risk Assessment template.

Assessments should identify fire hazards and spell out actions needed to ensure the safety of all people using a premises, including vulnerable residents. They must be kept up to date with reviews carried out whenever significant alterations are made to the premises.

Key considerations include:

  • design and layout of buildings

  • structural or “passive” fire protection measures

  • suitable escape routes and exits for people to escape

  • fire detection systems

  • emergency lighting

  • assembly points

  • the needs of vulnerable or dependent residents who might not be able to escape quickly, for example, wheelchair users or people with visual impairments.

If there are more than five members of staff on the premises it is a legal requirement that assessment findings are recorded.

Assessments should be kept in a fire safety file. Staff and safety representatives must be advised of the findings.

2. Make an emergency plan and update it regularly

Emergency plans should be based on the risk assessment. They should cover all the arrangements needed to reduce risks and ensure peoples safety. This will include details of:

  • what to do on discovering a fire

  • how to warn others if there is a fire

  • how to respond to an alarm

  • evacuation procedures

  • procedures for assisting vulnerable people

  • roles and responsibilities, for instance, who should call 999 and who should act as fire marshals, if appointed

  • where fire-fighting equipment is located

  • staff training and fire drills.

Plans should be kept in the fire safety file and made available to staff and residents on fire posters and notices. They should be simple, clear and concise. Having a clearly thought out evacuation plan in place that is easy to read and has been communicated to all staff will help to ensure that any evacuation is organised and panic-free. See here for a template Fire Emergency Plan Form..

3. Consider every resident's needs

Suitable escape plans should be devised for non-ambulant and disabled people. This will include disabled staff and visitors as well as vulnerable and dependent residents.

Disabled people should be consulted to establish their needs.

Managers must consider:

  • people in wheelchairs or with mobility problems

  • people with hearing difficulties who cannot hear a fire alarm

  • people with visual impairments who may be unable to see fire exit signs

  • people with learning difficulties or dementia who may have difficulty understanding what is going on.

Those who will need specific help to ensure their safety in the event of a fire will usually be provided with a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP). This is a bespoke “escape plan” for individuals who will not be able to leave a building unaided.

Nominated staff should be trained to provide any help required. If specific evacuation equipment is required then this should be provided.

4. Install and maintain appropriate fire detection and alarm systems

Those responsible for care home buildings must ensure that suitable fire detection and warning systems are fitted. In most cases this will comprise fire and smoke detectors and manually operated call points (usually “break-glass” boxes) linked to a suitable fire alarm system. In larger premises the systems may divide buildings into “zones” or fire-resistant compartments. Such zonal systems usually include a chart by the alarm box so that staff and firefighters can easily see the location of the alarm that has activated.

In all cases professional expert advice should be obtained in designing and fitting detection and alarm systems. Arrangements must be in place for regular testing and maintenance as recommended by manufacturers. Servicing and testing details should be recorded in the fire safety file.

5. Install appropriate fire suppression systems (sprinklers) as required

Automatic fire suppression systems can be very effective in reducing risks. They should be fitted wherever indicated in the fire risk assessment.

Sprinklers are the most common fire suppression systems. They work through sprinkler heads placed in ceilings which operate automatically whenever a sensor in a room detects heat. They should be fitted by specialist contractors and should meet appropriate standards, such as BS EN 12845:2015 Fixed firefighting systems. Automatic sprinkler systems. Design, installation and maintenance.

Fitting sprinklers is a legal obligation in new build care homes in Scotland and Wales but not yet in England. However, sprinklers are highly recommended by fire experts and by fire authorities. Certain local authorities may require buildings over a specific size to install fire protection measures, including sprinkler systems.

There have been calls for the law on sprinklers in England to change and latest proposals to update building regulations look set to be introduced in 2020 for high-rise blocks.

6. Carry out regular fire safety training and fire drills

Fire drills provide an opportunity for managers and staff to practice and perfect their evacuation procedures. Such drills should be run as often as is thought necessary. They should be well planned and documented. Care should be taken that staff on different shifts are able to participate.

Appropriate training programmes must be in place that cover fire safety. In care homes, the training should include any arrangements for evacuating vulnerable residents and keeping them safe. Staff responsible for checking, testing and maintaining fire alarm systems should be appropriately trained in compliance with manufacturer’s instructions.

7. Encourage smokers to quit and don't support smoking in bedrooms

Smoking is banned in most premises in the UK under smoke-free law. However, residential care homes are allowed certain exemptions.

If smoking is allowed in a home strict safety measures should be in place. Residents should only smoke in dedicated smoking rooms or outside the building. They should not smoke in bedrooms.

Residents who want to quit should be encouraged to do so.

8. Don't be afraid to ask for expert advice

Responsible persons and care home managers should never be afraid of seeking fire safety advice. This includes advice from local fire authorities or local fire and rescue services. When using external consultants ensure that they are appropriately qualified.

In some cases, managers may need to consult with the property’s insurers to ensure that the appropriate controls are in place.

9. Include the risks of specialist healthcare equipment and emollient creams in fire risk assessments

Assessments should cover all fire risks, including those presented by specialist healthcare equipment such as oxygen cylinders, if used by any residents.

Where oxygen is used staff should be fully trained in the precautions necessary for safety. Cylinders must always be handled according to manufacturer’s safety warnings. Smoking or the use of any naked flames near oxygen is extremely dangerous and must be prevented.

Fire experts warn that similar precautions should be taken where dynamic airflow pressure relieving mattresses and overlays are used. If punctured by a heat source, such as a match or cigarette, the escaping airflow may cause a fire to spread rapidly.

Emollient creams are moisturisers that can be used to prevent or treat dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. In January 2019 the Care Quality Commission passed on an alert to health and care professionals warning of the fire risks of such products, especially those that are paraffin based. See a model policy on Fire Risks from Use of Paraffin-based Emollients and Creams.

Care managers must ensure that any use of emollients is included in fire risk assessments. Those using emollient creams should be advised of the risks and asked not to smoke, not to use naked flames and not to go near anyone smoking or using naked flames. Clothing and bedding should be changed regularly to prevent creams soaking into fabrics.

Guidance can be found on the CQC website.

Last reviewed 18 February 2020