Sometimes Minimum Safety Standards Aren’t Enough
“I don’t think they have an awareness of what to do. They’ve been cared for all their lives. They look for someone to help them and there’s no one there.” These were the words of State Fire Marshal Joseph A. O’Keefe at the scene of a multiple life loss at a residential fire in Massachusetts last July.
Most of us in the fire service would jump to the conclusion that such remarks would be made following a fire in which bodies of children who were left alone are removed from a burned-out structure. But this time the remark was uttered to news reporters “on-the-spot” after a pre-dawn fire swept through a Beverly, MA, rooming house, claiming the lives of 13 of its adult residents (see “Dispatches” in this issue). For the most part, the victims in this case were the city’s de-institutionalized mentally ill under the direction and supervision of the state’s Department of Mental Health (DMH).
The words of the fire marshal do indeed describe the child-like behavior (disorientation, hiding, etc.) of mentally handicapped persons at tragedies like Beverly throughout the country.
“Group homes” is becoming a category of occupancies where the life loss percentage per fire is extremely high. Yet, most news accounts of such fatal fires usually follow with a statement that “The facility was found to meet with minimum fire safety standards.” Beverly was no exception. Maybe it’s time more of us said that these minimum safety standards are useless when dealing with a life occupancy that will exhibit other than usual behavior in emergency conditions.
Mentally disadvantaged and institutionalized persons (in the majority of cases) are taught or patterned to follow a carefully structured routine day. Familiarity and routine give the patient feelings of comfort and security. Straying from the routine can cause disorientation and, in some cases, total sensory shutdown in a self-defense effort.
This month, in our fire prevention issue, an informative article from Olean, NY, describes that fire department’s unique efforts in instructing mentally handicapped occupants of group homes. The holocaust in Beverly serves to emphasize the timely and important message of tuning your fire prevention and education programs to particular audiences.
Additionally, the record keeping of the National Fire Protection Association over many years has emphasized the value of sprinkler systems. In one important analysis, results showed that there have been no multiple fire deaths (more than two) in any occupancy where a properly operating automatic sprinkler system has been installed.
Group home owners are paid quite handsomely for their available housing. DMH officials in Beverly housed their charges in the “built to burn” dwelling because it was the only one that they could afford at $42 a day for each room. It doesn’t take much mathematics to figure that 32 such rooms wiy return quite a large monthly income for the property owner at government expense.
We feel that the record of fire incidents and deaths should be legislatively linked to that of sprinkler system successes. Public monies should be distributed as grants-in-aid, tied to a regulation that an automatic, supervised sprinkler system be part of the life safety system of such an occupancy before funds are released.