Older adults are the fastest growing age group of the American population, and unfortunately, are at the highest risk of fire related deaths.
Studies show elderly fire victims tend to be in close contact with the source of the fire that kills them. Often these deaths are caused by smoking, heating or cooking incidents. Their clothing, bedding or upholstery ignites from the spark resulting in serious injury or death. Nearly two-thirds of fire deaths in the elderly occur while they are sleeping or trying to escape the fire. This statistic only proves the importance of preparing and practicing an escape plan and of planning accordingly for the capabilities of older adults. The American Red Cross of Southwestern New York encourages older adults and their loved ones to better prepare for a fire emergency.
Some older adults have decreased mobility and other health issues that prohibit a quick response during a fire or any emergency. Medications and atrophy with age lead to a slower response or confusion and could alter the decision-making process. Help from a family member, caregiver or neighbor may be required to assist an older adult in safely exiting their home. The best way of addressing this issue is prepare for it before it is needed.
The leading cause of residential fire deaths among older adults is careless smoking. If older adults must smoke, never smoke in bed or near oxygen source, gas stove or other flammable object. When cooking, never approach an open flame while wearing loose clothing and do not leave cooking unattended - use a timer as a reminder of food in the oven. Never use the oven to heat a home. Properly maintain chimneys and space heaters.
Make sure smoke alarms are installed in each bedroom and outside all sleeping areas. Try to test them monthly and at least once a year. Caregivers and family members are encouraged to check smoke alarms for those who are unable to. The chance of survival at any age doubles with the initial warning of a smoke alarm.
Designing a fire escape plan around capabilities of the older adult is the key to survival in an emergency. Know at least two exists from every room. If the older adult uses a walker or wheelchair, check to make sure all exits can fit a walker or wheelchair so they can get out safely. If needed, make any necessary accommodations, such as providing an emergency exit ramp and widening doorways. And remember, unless instructed by the fire department, never use an elevator during a fire.
Try to speak with all older adults about working with family members and neighbors to create a fire safety plan. It is also important to help them practice their plan. If special accommodations need to made, some local fire departments may be able to assist with designing an escape plan to meet those needs. The fire department also might help inspect the home for fire safety and could offer suggestions about smoke alarm placement and maintenance.
The American Red Cross has several tips for fire safety and emergency preparedness on their website, www.redcross.org. The American Red Cross of Southwestern New York is a United Way agency.