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The elderly and the increased risk of fires

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POSTED: March 17, 2009 6:16 p.m.

Recently a fire disrupted normally peaceful living at an assisted-living complex in Savannah. At around 12:15 a.m. on Feb. 25. a fire ripped through The Woods of Savannah Apartments off Hodgson and Memorial Drive. This fire injured one elderly person, fatally injured another, and forced the frantic evacuation and rescue of several more during the incident. Additionally, five firefighters and six police officers were injured during the blaze. The preliminary investigation led fire officials to determine the improper use of smoking materials led to this tragic event.

Older people are at the greatest risk for dying in a fire. Americans over the age of 65 have a three times greater risk of dying than those under 65 years of age. Every year, over 1,000 elderly Americans over the age of 65 will perish in blazes across the country. In fact, people over the age of eighty will die in fires at a rate of three times higher than the rest of the population. Elderly burn victims are commonly held in hospitals for stays of forty days or more on the average.

Why is it that older people are more at risk? Elderly people commonly develop physical limitations that hinder their ability to quickly detect imminent dangers and to adequately react to them with self-rescue maneuvers. Medications can also delay the process of evacuation by affecting their ability to make quick and correct decisions. Elderly, especially those widowed, live alone and someone may not be around to assist in event of an emergency.

Fire hazards that typically affect our elderly population range in type. Most commonly, cooking accidents result in more fire injuries than any other. The kitchen is the most active and potentially dangerous room in the home. The leading cause of fire deaths for elderly is unsafe use of smoking materials. Heating equipment fires make up another large portion of fire causes that affect our elderly population. As we age, we slowly lose our ability to retain heat, which affects the temperature that elderly subjects attempt to keep their residence. Lastly, elderly typically live in older homes with outdated wiring, either from internal wiring, overloaded sockets, or older appliances.

How can we prevent these incidents from occurring and endangering our ever so loved elderly population?

· Smoke detectors are the first line of defense. Eighty percent of all fire deaths occur in homes without working smoke detectors.

· Only use Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) approved space heaters. Never store objects on top of space heaters or utilize space heaters as clothes dryers. Maintain at least three feet of clearance around space heaters. Do not store flammable liquids inside your home where vapors can explode. Do not use electric space heaters in areas prone to water exposure.

· Never smoke in bed. Do not smoke in your favorite, most comfortable chair that may cause you to easily dose off. Use caution when smoking and indulging in alcohol, as drowsiness may occur. Do not empty ashtrays until they are completely out.

· When cooking, never leave food unattended. If you must walk away briefly from the kitchen, carry something from there that may remind you of cooking. Do not wear loose clothing when cooking as the fabric may easily ignite causing devastating burns. Always double check to make sure that you cut the stove or burners completely off when finished cooking. Place a rubber mat in front of your stove and sink to prevent slipping. Heat cooking oils gradually and use extra caution when deep-frying foods. If a fire breaks out on the stove, put a lid on the pot. Do not throw water or flour on a grease fire as it may cause the rapid spread of a fire. Never use a range oven or stove as a heater. Only use approved pot holders for moving hot items. Towels may easily fall into an open flame causing a fire.

- If your circuit breaker or fuse constantly trips or blows, it may be a sign of a possible electrical problem. Contact an electrician or other qualified person to remedy the problem. Check all appliances and power cords for proper operation and/or frayed or exposed wires.

- Always practice EDITH! Exit Drills In The Home! Create and practice a safe and effective means of exiting the house in case of a fire. Keep a whistle, flashlight, and your eyeglasses near your bed so you are ready to react. Include two functional routes of escape if possible. Physically practice your plan to assure it is as easy as it looks. Sleep with your bedroom door closed to protect you from smoke and flames. In the event of a fire, smoke and heat usually rise so bend low, or crawl, and get out quickly. If you become trapped, stay calm, block smoke from entering the room and signal for rescuers.

In closing, our elderly are severely at risk for becoming victims of fire. We should take extra precaution to ensure their safety. We owe it to them and they will appreciate it. If they have physical limitations, whether living alone or not, they should contact the Bryan County Sheriff’s Department at (912) 756-2181. The communications officers will record the specific data into the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. The CAD will automatically notify dispatchers of potential problems for rescuers and they will forward that information to responding personnel. The difference can truly be life or death. It doesn’t matter if we have elderly relatives or neighbors, check in with them periodically. It means more than you could ever fathom. Should you have any more questions or concerns, please contact the Richmond Hill Fire Department at 756-4405. Our personnel will gladly assist you with your questions or direct you to the proper entity. Be safe!

Mike Ward is a Richmond Hill firefighter who writes a monthly column on fire safety and related topics.

 

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