This is an excerpt from a local news report you never want to see for a skilled nursing facility: “A worker was injured and several residents were displaced after a clothes dryer at a Lehigh nursing home Valley caught fire Wednesday morning, authorities said. ”
According to the report, fire crews discovered a fully involved clothes dryer with fire sprinkler activation when they arrived on the scene at 4:45 a.m. at the facility in Bethlehem Township, Pennsylvania. Authorities credit the facility’s fire sprinkler system and quick staff response with controlling the incident and achieving a generally favorable outcome.
Fires in healthcare facilities, and particularly those that have occurred in the past in nursing homes, were catastrophic and resulted in many fatalities before federal regulations requiring the presence of fire sprinkler systems. While these fire protection systems undoubtedly save lives, suppliers can still do more to prevent fires from occurring, especially in laundry rooms.
Building codes, fire prevention standards, and life safety regulations for health care facilities enforced by federal, local, and state agencies are designed in part to help ensure safety and prevent fires. These rules, including those applied by CMS and its contractors such as the Life Safety Code (NFPA #101, 2012 edition) and the Health Care Facilities Code (NFPA #99, 2012 edition), are very effective when building operators respect them to prevent fires.
Unwanted incidents such as fires occur when operational failures create hazardous conditions that ultimately lead to the ignition of combustible materials.
As a retired assistant fire chief, I responded to several fires in commercial retirement home laundry rooms during my 26 years with a major metropolitan area fire department. Each of these fires had one or two common denominators. These same factors are responsible for the majority of fires that occur in commercial laundry rooms today.
Most often, fires in an SNF’s laundry room are caused by improper use of commercial clothes dryers. This usually means that items that shouldn’t have been placed in the dryer have indeed been placed in the dryer barrel and caught on fire. Some of these items include microfiber mop heads and mixed loads of materials like rags that were previously saturated with grease, oil, or cleaning solutions. The temperatures produced in commercial clothes dryers can bring these combustible materials to their ignition temperature and subsequently cause a fire in the dryer cylinder.
The other common denominator is lack of maintenance. As a former fire marshal and currently a fire/life safety consultant, it’s not uncommon for me to see lint traps filled with combustible materials like highly flammable lint.
Additionally, mechanical areas behind and inside clothes dryers, including motors, electrical components and piping, near the open flame of a natural gas machine are often covered in lint when are not regularly cleaned and maintained. Imagine the area around the gas cooktop in your kitchen at home covered in combustible lint. At some point, a fire is entirely possible, as the heat from the cooking flame will eventually ignite the fluff.
The laundry room is an area of your healthcare facility, similar to your commercial kitchen, that requires vigilance and a strong operational commitment to prevent fires. Safety policies, procedures and protocols should be developed in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines to help ensure the proper functioning of laundry equipment. Personnel should be continuously trained in these procedures to help reduce the risk of fire.
Lint traps should be emptied regularly and all interior and exterior surfaces should be kept in a condition free of combustible materials such as lint. Again, follow information in user manuals and equipment safety guidelines to help ensure proper operation and reduced risk of fire.
Some retirement homes have developed a log to document how often the lint trap is cleaned on a daily basis. Although there is no standard for cleaning lint traps, it is better to do it more often than less often. More often than not, lint traps are often cleaned every one or two hours. In some cases, suppliers have a protocol for cleaning the lint trap after each load has been dried.
Maintenance and cleaning of other items of commercial laundry equipment, including clothes dryers, should be included in your facility’s preventative maintenance schedule. This type of equipment is usually inspected and deep cleaned at least once a month or more frequently depending on usage. The more active the equipment, the more frequently it needs to be cleaned.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has produced a one-page fact sheet that can be referenced to ensure fire safety requirements for residential-grade clothes dryers that may be associated with your nursing home. This NFPA information can also be considered to help ensure fire safety in your own home where fires often occur in single family residences, townhouses and apartment buildings due to lack of cleaning and dryer maintenance.
While the fire sprinkler system saved the day during a nursing home fire in Pennsylvania, it is important for your team to learn from these unfortunate incidents and institute the measures outlined in this article to reduce the risk of fire in your nursing home laundry room.
Stan Szpytek is the president of the national consulting firm Fire and Life Safety, Inc.. based in Mesa, AZ, and is the life safety/disaster planning consultant for the Arizona Health Care Association, California Association of Health Facilities (CAHF), Utah Health Care Association, and American Assisted Living Nurses Association (AALNA). He is a former Deputy Fire Chief and Fire Marshal with over 40 years of experience in life safety compliance and emergency preparedness. For more information, email Szpytek at Firemarshal10@aol.com.
The opinions expressed in McKnight Long Term Care News guest submissions are those of the author and not necessarily those of McKnight Long Term Care News or its editors.