Fire chief speaks out about Nashville nursing home fire

Posted By | September 30, 2003 12:00 am

Kim Swindell Wood
“When I first saw the fire on TV, I thought what a terrible tragedy it was for the families involved,” said Sparta Fire Chief Ed Kay.
When Kay spoke with The Expositor Friday afternoon, he expressed his deepest sympathy for the families of the individuals who perished in the fire on Thursday at the NHC Healthcare facility in Nashville. The structure, which was built in the 1960’s, before fire sprinklers were mandatory, had been “grandfathered” in under a current law that requires newer structures to have sprinklers.
NHC Healthcare of Sparta is owned by National Healthcare Corporation, which is the same company that owns the facility in Nashville that was destroyed by fire. According to Sunday’s edition of the Tennessean, NHC Healthcare of Sparta does not have a sprinkler system. However, Mike Clark, maintenance supervisor, told The Expositor on Sunday night that sprinklers were installed in the new skilled wing, which was built approximately 15 years ago.
“There’s a terrible misconception about sprinklers that they cause a lot of damage,” said Kay. “Everybody thinks that if one sprinkler goes off, the whole building gets flooded, and that’s not the case. There are types of sprinkler systems designed to do that, depending on the application, like if it were a highly flammable storage facility where you’d want to douse the whole building. But, in a residential type building or in most commercial buildings the sprinkler head itself is set off by the heat in that location. The whole entire system doesn’t drown the entire building. There might be a call now for legally requiring retrofitting sprinklers in all healthcare facilities. Sprinklers certainly save lives and save property.”
Even if a nursing home does not have a sprinkler system, the Tennessee Department of Health requires the facility to have a fire escape plan.
“All nursing homes and hospitals are required to have written emergency procedures,” said Kay. “Our [fire department] procedures are to augment those and to make certain, first of all, that everybody is out of the area of involvement and then to attack the fire at the same. But, our primary concern is moving patients and at the same time realizing that you’re moving fragile people. If we have an incident in one of our nursing homes, they are set up into zones, and they have fire doors that protect different zones. You may have a fire in one area of the building, and all it requires is you moving everybody from that zone into another safe zone, and rarely do you end up having to evacuate the entire building.”
Kay also said doors in a nursing home are fire-rated. “They are one-hour, two-hour, four-hour doors,” he said. “They are supposed to be able to withstand a certain temperature for a certain period of time. You’ll notice when you go into a hospital or school or healthcare facilities that there are doors that are being held open all the time, and they are being held open with magnets. When the alarms go off, those magnets are electronically released, and the doors automatically shut. Just because you have an incident in one part of the building doesn’t mean you have to relocate all the patients. When you begin evacuating people, in any situation, whether it is a residential area or in a confined area like a nursing home, you endanger people just by moving them, particularly in a healthcare facility.”
Firefighters are usually the first point of contact for a fire victim, and they must be trained to safely move these individuals.
“We’re trained, at least to the first responder level, to know how to move injured people,” said Kay. “Any time we have to physically move somebody, we’re going to take all the precautions we can. In a fire situation, you just grab them and go, but every precaution is taken.”
Kay praised local nursing homes for their professionalism and quick reaction time when a fire alarm has been activated. “Most of the time when we’re called to a nursing home facility, and when we’ve had an actual fire situation, that area has already been totally cleared out. They [nursing home personnel] have at least moved people from that wing that’s involved, and we’re free then to focus on the problem of the fire.”
Cheri’ Cropper, NHC Healthcare of Sparta administrator, could not be reached for comment on Friday. However, The Expositor plans to have a complete story in Thursday’s edition detailing NHC Healthcare of Sparta’s policies and procedures at the local facility.

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