The holidays are upon us and here in the Northeast the cold weather is settling in. There is nothing more traditional in New England than a warm house as the winter snows pile up outside. But along with frigid temperatures come the dangers of house fires - and we are entering a very dangerous time of year.
Fire deaths from December through February run more than twice as high as those between June and August, reports the National Fire Protection Association, and there is no group more affected by these tragedies than our seniors.
Although the fire death rate trend for older adults (ages 65 and older) decreased 19 percent from 2007-2016, older adults still face the greatest relative risk of dying in a fire. In the 2016 statistics, older adults had a 2.5 times greater risk of dying in a fire than the population as a whole -- and with the graying of America, the numbers will only increase.
Let's take a look at some real news to prove this point. These tragedies have occurred within the last two months.
Independence, Missouri - Authorities say an elderly woman has died after a house fire. The Kansas City Star reports that police say the woman was pulled from the burning home Monday. Emergency responders began CPR before pronouncing her dead. Her name wasn’t immediately released.
Memphis, Tennessee - An elderly couple was killed in a house fire in Raleigh. The fire happened Friday night on Haughton Place. Memphis fire officials said food was left on the stove, causing the house to go up in flames. A family member identified the victims as Forrest and Angela Peyton, both in their 80s.
Landsdowne, Maryland - Authorities say a fire at a Maryland house killed a woman. Firefighters found an elderly woman in the dwelling in Lansdowne and that she was pronounced dead at the scene. Firefighters arrived to find heavy flames at the house. He said the cause of the fire is under investigation.
Penn Hills, Pennsylvania - An elderly couple was found dead inside their Penn Hills home after it caught fire on Saturday. Crews responded to the fire call in the 400 block of Beulah Road just before 10 a.m. Authorities later identified the victims as Leslie and Marianne Frost. They were 96 and 95 years old, respectively.
Roseville, Maryland - A 75-year-old woman died and her adult daughter was injured Saturday morning in a house fire in Roseville, according to police. Roseville firefighters and police were called to the blaze at about 8:30 a.m. to Maple Street, north of Martin Road, west of Gratiot Avenue.
Pittsfield, Massachusetts - The investigation continues after an early morning fire killed two people in Pittsfield. Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said when they heard two people were trapped inside the house, they immediately called in everyone on duty. A woman was able to escape the burning home and call for help, but her elderly parents were still inside.
Willowick, Ohio - Investigators with the Willowick Fire Department and Ohio Division of State Fire Marshal are investigating an early morning fire believed to have killed an elderly man and his dog. The fire broke out just after 1 a.m. at a house on E. 326th St. According to neighbors, he was in a wheelchair.
Bonney Lake, Washington -- An elderly man bound to a wheelchair died in a mobile home fire early Wednesday morning in Bonney Lake. Crews were called after 5 a.m. Wednesday to the 9100 block of 207th Avenue East. Four people were inside the mobile home when the fire started. One of them went back inside to try to get the elderly man out but was unsuccessful.
These are just a few of the dozens of fire deaths experienced by seniors this fall with the most dangerous months occurring now. So why are our seniors so much more at risk than younger adults? Quite simply, it's because aging causes them to become physically weaker and their mental responses slow down, making it harder to identify and respond to a fire emergency.
Cognitive changes can be more hazardous than physical ones because a senior may not even realize that they are in danger when a fire starts and they often engage in behaviors that increase the risk of a fire. Alcohol use and the side effects of certain prescribed medications can add to that problem.
Since most seniors are on fixed incomes, they often cannot afford the improvements necessary to decrease the fire risk as they become more dependent on using devices and outside agencies to live independently -- and as we have discussed many times before, the trend for seniors to remain in the home and age in place is increasing. As a result, seniors will need help from family members to put safety measures in place and require more well-being check-ins.
Let's take a look at the major causes of senior fire deaths and injuries.
Fires caused by smoking are the leading cause of deaths for seniors. If a loved one smokes, stress to them the importance of not smoking in bed.
Advise them to never leave smoking materials unattended and that all ashtrays that may be in the house are deep and emptied on a regular basis.
Cooking fires are the number one cause of fire injuries among older adults.
Emphasize that they must never leave cooking food unattended. If they need to step away, they should turn off the stove. Keep lids nearby so that if the pan catches fire, they can carefully slide the lid on it and turn off the stove. Mount a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, and check the pressure gauge monthly. Also, remind seniors not to wear loose clothing when cooking: a dangling sleeve can easily catch fire. Keep towels and potholders away from the stove. Clean the exhaust hood and the duct over the stove regularly.
If you are using space heaters to heat areas of your home, here are some things to be aware of:
Make sure the heaters that you purchase are certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory.
Before using the heater this year, do a close inspection of the device. Look for broken plugs, loose connections and frayed or worn wire.
Make sure your heater has an automatic shutoff in case it tips over. Older heaters do not have this and should be replaced for your safety. With the new generation of space heaters, they are inexpensive and worth the small expenditure.
Plug the heater directly into the outlet. Do not use extension cords.
Do not use space heaters in damp areas such as the bathroom unless they are specifically made for such use
Never leave a space heater unattended
Allow three feet of space around a heater and make sure there are no flammable items in the area
Never use the oven or stove-top burners as heating sources should the furnace malfunction
Here are some other tips;
Check your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors to make sure they are working. These devices need to be replaced on average every five years. Check the date on your detector.
If you are using oxygen tanks or compressors, have a sign on your door stating that such equipment is in use. It can save the life of a first responder!
Cleaning products and hand sanitizers can sometimes contain flammable products. Keep them away from heat sources or open flames.
If you have a washer and dryer, make sure the dryer lint catcher is checked on a regular basis as well as the dryer venting system
Develop an emergency escape plan. This is especially important for seniors as leaving a dangerous area may take some time if they have a disability. In some cases, labeling the escape route may be a good idea
Have fire extinguishers present and make sure you know how to use them. However, make sure to understand that if the fire is too big, leave the house.
Check old appliance an extension cords
Make sure the main heating system is in good shape and has had its annual cleaning
If there is a fire, remember this;
Don’t try to fight it. Call 911 or go to a neighbor’s residence and ask for help.
Fires grow rapidly, and you could become overwhelmed quickly
Get out fast and stay out. Do not return to gather property
Once you leave the burning area, close the door behind you to prevent a rapid spread.
If the house if filling with smoke, drop to the ground and crawl out. Put your hand over your mouth
If you are trapped, close all the doors between you and the fire and call 911
If you are in elderly housing, don’t use elevators.
If your clothes are on fire, do the following;
Don’t run or use your hands to try and pat out the flames. Running fans the flames and can spread the injury to other parts of your body
Drop to the ground and roll
Cover your face with your hands
If you have burns from a fire or a kitchen accident, do the following:
Run the burn under cool water as soon as possible. This stops further damage from occurring
Put a clean towel or rag on the burn.
Do not apply ointment, grease or butter to the burn
No matter how minor the burn is, seniors may have compromised immune systems and an infection could develop rapidly. Seek medical attention as soon as possible after a burn.
Connelly Law Office has attached two downloadable documents from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) printed in both English and Spanish. The first one is a handout on preventing fires in the home, and the second is staying safe in a fire.
Please click on the form below to download and print.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.