The residents of Care Homes are often frail and elderly and may suffer from neurological impairments such as dementia, resulting in them being unable to recognise the risk of harm associated with falling down stairs or accessing unsafe and unfamiliar external areas.
To protect residents from harm, it is likely that access to staircases and external areas (at least to some degree) will need to be restricted, there is however conflict here with providing readily available means of escape routes in case of fire.
A risk assessment will need to carried out to ascertain whether or not all residents at the Home are safe to access and use the staircases; in most cases the risk of allowing unrestricted access is likely to be too high.
Internal Security Arrangements
To assist staff in restricting access to potentially unsafe areas, such as stairs and final exit doors, the building may be secured by the use of electromagnetic locks (maglocks). Similarly, resident access to high risk rooms such as kitchens and laundry rooms can be restricted with digital locks (digilocks) or manually operated keypads.
Notwithstanding the fact that maglocks can be used on stair and final exit doors, the locks need to release the doors when the fire alarm sounds. In the event of a power or fire alarm failure, maglocks will automatically release the doors, the doors also need a mechanism to manually override the maglocks (emergency door release ‘green boxes’).
Care needs to be taken when considering the type of door security device to install, there’s little point installing security measures that can be easily defeated by residents. Similarly, if the measures put in to place unduly restrict staff in their day to day duties, there is a risk that staff will disarm the devices. This is common when manually operated keypads are fitted to doors in constant use such as access/egress doors from kitchens and laundry rooms (a digilock is a more appropriate device on such rooms).
To ensure that the security arrangements achieve their objective, the below precautions should be considered:-
- Placing the manual door security override devices (green boxes) at a height that is not directly in the residents’ line of vision. The devices still need to be in reach of visitors and all staff members; a dimension of around 1.8m above floor level is usually appropriate.
- Where there is a high risk or history of the fire alarms’ call points being activated, consider relocating them within the protected stair enclosure areas where residents don’t have access, rather than within the corridor.
- Within resident accessible areas, fit clear plastic flip covers to all call points and emergency door release mechanisms.
- If, having taken the above precautions, call points and or emergency release mechanisms are still being activated, consider the addition of a screamer unit over the devices.
Some of the above suggestions represent ‘variations’ to the British Standard guidance and will need to be justified as part of your buildings’ Security and Access Assessment and your Fire Risk Assessment.
Checks also need to confirm that security arrangements cannot be bypassed by a resident using an alternative route (e.g. through a residents bedroom that has unsecured patio doors, by using the passenger lift etc).
Whenever stairs become unsecure (for example during fire alarm tests, power or system failure) staff must be aware that they will need to supervise residents and restrict access to unsafe areas.
Other Considerations within the Building
During an evacuation, residents, staff and visitors may need to use the staircases in order to move a sufficient distance away from the fire (this is usually as a last resort, where further progressive evacuation cannot be carried out). All of the Home’s staircases need to be fit for evacuation purposes.
Where stairs are used by people with disabilities, both Building Regulations and British Standard Guidance suggests:-
- That a continuous handrail is provided to each side of the stair.
- The edge of the stair treads (known as the ‘nosing’) is distinguished from the main body of the stair flight. This is not only of assistance to residents who’s sight is impaired, but also in general terms; there may be only emergency lighting in operation during an evacuation.
Another risk to residents can be low level window openings at first floor level (e.g. in older properties, sash windows); if a resident were to fall on to the window, the glass is likely to break. The opening width of windows in care homes is usually restricted to a gap of 100mm.
There is a risk that visitors could inadvertently hold doors open and allow residents to leave the site; all visitors must be advised that residents should not be given door codes and to be aware of residents trying to ‘shadow’ them out of the building. A well placed reception/office with a staff presence and good visibility helps to address this issue.
The height of guarding around stair landing areas also needs to be considered. Guarding for Building Regulations purposes is designed to prevent persons accidentally falling and prevent young children from climbing it. For this purpose, guarding is usually provided at a height of up to 1100mm above floor level. Where there is a risk that adults (e.g. those with dementia) could attempt to climb the guarding, it should be at least 1400mm high (a full height screen would be preferable).
Following your risk assessment it may have determined that it is safe for residents to have unrestricted access to certain garden areas. External areas must also be assessed, consideration should be given to:-
- Enclosing external spaces accessed by residents with fencing or similar.
- Preventing access to garden steps, steep slopes, ponds etc.
- Preventing access to any external fire escape stairs.
It is likely that resident accessible garden areas will also form part of the external fire escape routes. Where this is the case, suitable locked gates should be provided using either maglocks (connected to the fire alarm system) or combination padlocks. In the case of combination padlocks, additional emergency lighting is likely to be required.
Every Care Home is individual and so are its residents. To ensure that Care Homes meet the specific needs of their residents and assist staff in keeping residents safe from harm, every Home should carry out a comprehensive Security & Access Assessment. Following the assessment, Care Homes will need to put in to place suitable, proportionate arrangements to avoid foreseeable injuries from falls and harm caused as a result of residents leaving the site in an uncontrolled manner.
Posted by: Adrian Gouldin Bsc (Hons) MRICS GIFireE, Marpal’s Head of Fire Safety & IFE registered Fire Risk Assessor.
For further information on Fire Safety, please contact Adrian Gouldin by phone (01332 668877) or email ([email protected]).