Protecting Elderly Populations In A Fire

Older adults are more vulnerable to a number of risks including fire, either at home or in assisted living facilities such as nursing homes. In a recent nationwide survey conducted by the Society for Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE), Americans correctly identified adults age 65 and older as the most at-risk group.

Thirty-nine percent of Americans named older adults as the most at risk of fire danger, while 26% of respondents indicated that infants and toddlers were most at risk. At the same time, 63% of Americans stated they think about fire less than once a year.

“I’m not surprised that Americans recognize the increased risk of fire to older adults. People with limited physical and cognitive abilities, especially older adults, are at a higher risk of death from fire than other groups,” says Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager at SFPE, and a scheduled speaker at The TFM Forumthis coming April. “At the same time, it’s dismaying that most people don’t think about fire even once a year when over 3,000 people die each year as a result of fire. Without a doubt, the public does not fully understand the enormity and seriousness of the fire problem.”

While fire is a noteworthy risk for people of all ages, federal government statistics cite older adults to be almost twice as likely to die in a fire as compared to the rest of the population. Older adults are more likely to suffer from reduced sensory abilities and mental capacities as well as physical disabilities. Moreover, medical devices, cooking equipment, and electrical products can pose serious fire risks to older adults.

There are numerous ways that fire protection engineers play an essential role in designing safe facilities that house aging populations. For example, they analyze how buildings are used, how fires start, how fires grow, and how fire and smoke affects people, buildings, and property. Additionally, they use technology to:

  • Design systems that control fires, alert people to danger and provide means for escape
  • Evaluate buildings to pinpoint the risks of fires and the means to prevent them
  • Conduct fire safety research on consumer products and construction materials
  • Investigate fires to discover how fire spreads, why protective measures failed, and how those measures could have been designed more effectively

The Society seeks to increase the public’s awareness of how science and technology is used to protect people from fire. “Whether they live in a small house or a large assisted living facility, it’s critically important to take the time to evaluate your loved ones fire risks and ensure the best technology is available to protect them from fire, “ said Jelenewicz. “Their life may depend on it.”

The survey, commissioned by the SFPE and conducted in January 2010 by Synovate, polled more than 1,000 American adults. The findings have a margin of error of +/- 3%.

Tips On Fire And Elderly Populations

As part of National Engineers Week, February 14-20, SFPE published a list of ways that fire protection engineers enhance the safety of public and private buildings and what American should look for in their loved ones living facilities.

Fire protection engineers use science and technology to protect our aging population from fire. Fire protection engineers enhance the safety of facilities that house the elder by designing:

  • Active Fire Protection Systems: Fire protection engineers design active fire protection systems such as fire detection systems, sprinkler systems, notification systems, and means of egress systems. These systems detect fires, control fires, alert people to danger, and provide means for escape.
  • Passive Fire Protection Systems: Fire protection engineers design passive fire protection such as fire barriers, smoke barriers, and fire doors that block the spread of smoke and fire in a building. In an assisted living facility, passive systems also provide an area of refuge for people who are not mobile.
  • Testing and Maintenance Programs for Fire Protection Equipment: Once fire protection systems are designed and installed in a building, the facility must should an inspection, maintenance, and testing program for these systems. Records for all testing, maintenance, and inspection activities should be available at all times.
  • Emergency Planning: Every assisted living facility should have a documented emergency plan that addresses the many types of emergencies that can occur including fire. This plan should include an evacuation plan and a plan for exit drills. Exit drills are necessary so that occupants will know how to make an efficient and orderly escape. Moreover, the plan should be coordinated with the local fire department. All staff should receive periodic training and understand their responsibilities in implementing the emergency plan.


  1. Residential properties such as an elderly persons home would benefit hugely from a fire sprinkler system. The sprinkler system would save a lot of lives and limit the amount of fire damage caused, the long-term benefits far outweigh the cost of installation.

    In the UK not one single person has died from a fire in a building protected by fire sprinklers.

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