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  FIA - providing a resource on fire safety for the care home industry - Fire Industry Association (FIA)  

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Fire extinguishers: a vital role to play in care homes

Portable fire extinguishers remain a vital part of managing fire safety risk, whatever the premises. However, when you look at the care home environment and consider the consequences of evacuating the elderly and the infirm, the means to safely address a fire at an early point and hopefully extinguish the threat before such action is necessary takes on an ever greater significance.

With an estimated 800 fires in residential care premises annually in the UK alone, the scale of the problem is self evident.  This is also against a general increase of eight percent in all fire deaths in the UK for the period up to 31 March 2008, a disappointing statistic given the long-term downward trend in fatalities prior to 2008. In addition to the potential loss of life, there are also the economic losses from fire that could result in permanent closure of a care home. The latest figures from the Association of British Insurers (ABI) show the cost of fire damage in 2008 for all UK premises rose to a record £1.3 billion. It is not only the damage to the building and its contents that has an impact – increases in insurance payments, the destruction of data, and the psychological effect that the fire has on the residents’ general wellbeing and levels of confidence all need to be considered to appreciate the full consequences of fire.

The success of portable fire extinguishers as a means of tackling fire is well documented. A survey into their use showed that 80% of the fires fought with them are successfully extinguished and that in 75% of cases there was no need to call the fire and rescue services. It is clear that fire extinguishers play a very important role in the preservation of life and property and, in a residential care home, the ability they provide to control a fire in its early stages can significantly reduce the risk to the more vulnerable who may well require assistance if an evacuation is necessary.


Risk Assessment

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (the fire safety legislation that is now in place) requires that a full risk assessment be carried out on any care home and, as part of that process, the number of portable fire extinguishers required should be matched to the risk identified in a given premises. Attention should also be paid to selecting the appropriate extinguisher for the fire risk – a guide to the types of extinguisher and their application is freely available from the Fire Industry Association (FIA).

The extinguishers should be located at appropriate points, such as on the escape routes at each floor level, with signage possibly also necessary to highlight their location.

Just having the extinguishers to hand is not enough. Attention must also be paid to the need to train those people who may be expected to attempt to extinguish a fire. In a care home this will obviously be staff rather than residents and all staff should be familiar with the location and basic operating procedures of the portable fire extinguishers provided. 

In residential care homes, portable fire extinguishers should primarily be used to protect life and facilitate safe escape as the emphasis must be towards the safety of residents

rather than fighting the fire.  Despite their undoubted value, it is important to appreciate that their role is to tackle a fire in its early stages: they cannot be expected to deal with a large fire since they are essentially first aid fire fighting appliances which is why training in their use is so important.


All fire safety precautions provided need to be installed and maintained by a ‘competent person’. Under the Fire Safety Order a person is to be regarded as competent where he/she has sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities to enable him/her properly to assist in undertaking the preventive and protective measures. For commercial buildings the main enforcing body will be the local fire and rescue authority.

In view of the above it is strongly recommended that portable fire extinguishers be properly maintained by personnel that can prove their competence through membership of a scheme such as the ‘Portable Fire Extinguisher Service Technicians Scheme’ from BAFE.

Part of the equation

In conclusion, portable fire extinguishers are only part of the means of protecting a care home from fire, albeit a very important part. Other fire protection provision will invariably be required e.g. hose reels, sprinklers, fire blankets, other automatic extinguishing systems, as well as fire detection and alarm systems. Virtually all residential care premises will require an electrical fire detection and alarm system incorporating automatic fire detectors, sounders and manually operated call point (break-glass detectors). The major transparent change for the owner of a care home under the new fire safety regime is that fire certificates have been removed and, as the owner, you are deemed to be the responsible person in terms of ensuring the fire safety of the premises. It is unreasonable to expect a care home owner to be particularly well versed in fire safety legislation and the appropriate technology so the need to employ companies and individuals that are competent in their respective field of fire safety has become more important than ever.

Robert Thilthorpe
Technical Manager
Fire Industry Association
  Tel:    020 8549 8839
Web: http://www.fia.uk.com
Email: info@fia.uk.com
Fax:   020 8547 1564


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