What does “responsibility” look like when evaluating lightning safety and protection protocols for senior care facilities?

As life expectancy standards increase and baby boomers advance in age, the U.S. is swiftly facing a critical challenge to provide appropriate assisted care for seniors. As construction demand for senior care increases, so will the need for these facilities to evaluate safety protocols–including those for building fire safety systems, like lightning protection.

In July of 2017, lightning sparked a fire at the Chesapeake Crossing Senior Community Apartments in Virginia. Now, the family of a woman who died in the fire at the senior living complex has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the management and corporate owner of the buildings. According to news reports, the suit alleges that the apartments and management “negligently failed” to provide proper maintenance for the complex, thus “endangered the lives” of the residents.

An attorney representing the family filing the suit described the complex as housing for “seniors with low income and limited mobility,” and thus alleged that the owner had a “duty” to maintain safe living conditions for its residents.

“That comes with serious responsibility when you’re caring for the elderly,” the attorney explained.

So what does that “responsibility” look like for owners, builders, architects and engineers in terms of the design and build process?

Officials from the senior care facility have stated that the building complex was “in compliance with the building code” and “equipped with smoke detectors and a sprinkler system.” But in terms of achieving serious safety, building code requirements—which typically mandate minimum requirements—often fall short.

According to NFPA sources, fires at senior care facilities are especially challenging and often necessitate more operational protocol and tasks than standard first alarm fire responders can handle. This is a major reason why many fire safety officials upgrade these fires to bring in second or multiple alarm assignments. Since a large percentage of our senior population is incapable of self-evacuating or recognizing a threat, swift response times and appropriate self-rescue tactics are not the expected emergency response for residents at senior facilities.

Detecting fires as soon as they start, keeping them from spreading and vigilance about fire detection, suppression and maintenance are expected safety practices. Unfortunately, many facilities fall short when it comes to implementing measures like lightning protection systems (LPS), which are designed to prevent storm-initiated fires in the first place.

Here’s a look at some of the mayhem that could have been prevented at the Chesapeake Crossing Senior Community Apartments, if lightning protection had been installed on the center’s structures:

Deaths of three residents

·        Deaths of three residents

·        Injuries to six others (including two firefighters)

·        A four-alarm fire, damaging three out of five of the community’s buildings

·        Numerous displaced residents from 144 apartments left uninhabitable

·        A multitude of insurance claims

·        A wrongful death lawsuit, with additional suits expected to follow soon

Assisted living facilities manage an important goal: care and housing for residents who are typically unable to live independently. Residents and their families trust these facilities to evaluate safety and potential risks to occupants, buildings and operations. When considering the potential risk lightning poses to seniors in terms of safety, susceptibility and disruption, shouldn’t the cost (often minimal!) of lightning protection be evaluated as standard protocol for assisted living facilities and housing centers?

Knowing how to react in a fire is especially important for the aging population. As such, the NFPA provides these fire safety tips for older adults.