Posted by: silverstar98121 | June 11, 2008

The Fire

Recently Nurse Myra wrote about a fire at Gimcrack Hospital, and it sounded like a comedy on the part of the patients. Unfortunately, the fire at Old Folks Park, where I used to work, was a comedy of errors by the staff. It very much resembled an effort by the Keystone Kops.

Nothing like this every takes place when it is convenient. And this didn’t either. Not only was it a Sunday, but it was in January, and like most days in January in Western Washington, it was raining. And as usual on Sundays, someone had called in sick and we were short-staffed. As a matter of fact, this wasn’t my usual bailiwick, I was a paper-work nurse most of the time. I was probably there taking the place of someone who was sick or on vacation. I wish I had been home.

Old Folks ParkI have included a diagram of the joint so you can get the picture. If you click on it, you will get a full sized image. I was working on Unit B, Mike was on unit A and I think Mary was on the dementia unit. So I’m blithely going along passing meds when suddenly the fire alarm goes off. This can mean anything from some smoke in the kitchen or laundry, to imminent danger for all the residents. So I leave my unit to go up front, where I find that there is a fire in the laundry, and the sprinklers go off. I go back to my unit, because I had actually read the disaster plan, and that’s where I was supposed to be. But that left no one in charge of the whole joint.

Of course, 911 was called, although our alarms rang at the fire station anyway. The fire alarm is loud and irritating enough, but after about four minutes, another alarm would sound, which was called the “evacuation alarm.” Mostly it just meant that no one had turned the fire alarm off, but it was badly named as we shall see. It was louder, and more irritating than the fire alarm.

The fire was still smoldering in the laundry, and smoke was starting to come down the hallway, and onto Unit A. Because of this, and the evacuation alarm, Mike gave directions to the staff to start evacuating residents. I had just told my people to put the residents in their rooms, and shut the doors. If smoke had started to drift our way, I would have had them put towels and bath blankets under the door to keep the smoke out of the rooms. I couldn’t see “evacuating” old people out into the weather unless they were in imminent danger.

About this time I looked down the hall, and nursing assistants were pushing residents out the south door, right into the path that the fire engines would be roaring into any minute. I made them bring the residents back in and put them in their rooms. They surely were safer there than in the path of tons of roaring steel. Meanwhile, however, since no one was in charge of the whole building, Mike evacuated his residents out the front door into the parking lot, and Mary had taken all her residents out into the fenced area surrounding the dementia unit.

Of course, as things go, this was the one time it took the fire department 20 minutes to get to the Home. The fire continued to smolder. Eventually they got there, and quickly put the fire out. It was just a smoldering incontinent pad in one of the dryers, and if the laundry lady had had any brains, she could have put the fire out herself. And then we were left to deal with the aftermath.

The residents on Unit A were out in the weather, the dementia unit residents were out in the weather. My residents were cozy in their rooms. So I went up front and dealt with the reports for the fire department. The administrator was out of town, and it took a while to locate the director of nursing. Meanwhile, there is a ton of water down the hallway where the laundry is from the sprinklers. I never thought to check on the dementia unit, and they stood outside for 45 minutes until someone thought to tell them the danger was over. Actually, the greatest danger they faced that day was catching their deaths of cold.

Of course, the whole time we waited for the fire department, the alarm sounded. It’s not rock concerts that deafened me, it was that stupid alarm. Mostly when it went off, someone with a key was present to turn it off, but they didn’t trust mere nurses, even ones with Master’s degrees, to turn it off. It had to be maintenance or the administrator. All the resident’s were riled from the noise. It was not a lot of fun.

The Director of Nurses eventually showed up with her husband, and they began to deal with the damage. They called in a company that did clean-up after fires, who then sucked up all the water from the sprinklers and set gigantic fans to both dry the area out and get out the smoke smell. And I’ll bet the DON got in trouble for that, the cheap old fart who owned the home had never before paid anybody but staff to clean up the mess when the sprinklers went off. Picture the Social Worker and Activities Director soaking up tons of water with mops and towels. That’s how it was at Old Folks Park.

Old Folks Park is no more, and it’s not missed. The building was antiquated when I worked there. My office was next to the laundry, and it had no windows except a small transom up high, which had to be left open summer and winter due to the heat from the laundry. In summer, I had to take my work out to the picnic tables outside the door to survive. The dementia unit was almost as bad. The windows on the unfenced side had screws so that the windows could only be opened a couple of inches, installed after one of the residents opened the window, took out the screen, and escaped, nekkid, before we knew it.

One good thing that came out of the fire was that the disaster plan was reviewed, and staff was reminded that the “evacuation alarm” didn’t necessarily mean the residents had to be dragged out into the weather. And evacuation plans were changed so that staff was not evacuating residents into the path of fire trucks. If we accomplished nothing else that day, that was a benefit.


  1. we’re lucky that the fire station is very close and they come immediately. it’s only the fireys who are allowed to turn the alarm off in australia. even though I have a key to the fire panel I’m not allowed to touch it once it goes off – and you’re right – it’s totally deafening…..

  2. Usually, they were there quite quickly. This one day apparently they had been out on another call, and a more distant station had answered us. And if people had given some thought to what they were doing, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Folks need to learn the EMT mantra, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” In other words, consider the consequences of what you are considering doing.

  3. we’ve got the same situation – only the firemen (first responders) can turn off the alarms. making us WANT to evacuate quickly…

    were there fire doors between the units? that would be further justification for not automatically forcing infirm elderly people to stand in the rain… when Mom was in rehab, i looked at the facility staff ratio, and the evacuation plan. and was DEEPLY concerned because she was on the second floor, there were two centrally located elevators, and stairwells only at two ends of the building… yikes!

  4. There were indeed fire doors, Daisy Fae. As far as I am concerned this was a case of nobody putting their thinking hats on. There was no reason to evacuate the dementia unit, my unit was closer to the fire, and the gas meter. People panic and they don’t think unless you have everything spelled out and drill them on it. And tell them not to eat the daisies, or push residents out where they will get run over by fire trucks. After this we made a rule that nobody evacuated anybody unless there was imminent danger of fire or the fire department told them to.

    They may not have been supposed to, but this place did all kinds of things they weren’t supposed to. Only the firemen can turn the alarms off in this building, and it is very annoying, having flashing lights and a loud voice alarm as well as the siren alarm. I have learned to ignore it, since I live on the 10th floor and can’t walk down with my knees. It’s a brick building, anyway. This building, with its large population of elderly and disabled, many of them in wheelchairs, is a fireman’s nightmare.

  5. ummm… daisyfae that could be the gimcrack you’re describing – two centrally located lifts, stairwells at two ends….. and the gimcrack is 9 storeys high!

    though we do have very good fire doors so it would take a lot to make us evacuate completely.

    the fire was only on one level and the decision was made to evacuate just those patients because there was quite a bit of smoke as ‘someone’ had opened the door to the laundry to see how bad the fire was……!

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