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Retirement center staff not required to pass fire training in Georgia

Posted: June 23, 2015 - 11:11pm
A fire rages June 2 at Marshall Square Resort, which under state law does not have to train its staff in fire-safety procedures.  Photo by Jim Blaylock
Photo by Jim Blaylock
A fire rages June 2 at Marshall Square Resort, which under state law does not have to train its staff in fire-safety procedures.

Unlike at assisted-living and personal-care facilities, Georgia law does not require employees to complete fire safety training at retirement centers such as Marshall Square, where residents say the staff appeared unprepared to evacuate during a fire that cost an elderly woman her life.

Dorothy Carpenter, 91, died from smoke inhalation inside her third-floor apartment June 2 during a fire at the Evans resort. Some of the more than 80 seniors, many with varying degrees of disability, said they never practiced or received explanations about evacuation procedures and policies that urged them to stay put.

The owner of the facility, Resort Life­style Communities, has released a copy of its emergency plan, which states that “all newly hired employees are to be trained on fire safety during their first week on the job and annually thereafter.”

The policy requires individual and group safety training to be documented in the company’s Learning Management System, but it is not clear whether Marshall Square met the requirement.

Steve Mueller, the chief operating officer of Resort Lifestyle Com­munities, said this week that he did not have information showing training was completed, and he added the resort does not participate in the state’s fire-safety course.

“I will make a note of that,” he said of the course.

Last year, Georgia expanded its laws to require staffers at personal-care and assisted-living facilities to pass a five-hour certification course on fire safety that was originally designed in the early 2000s for child care providers. State officials said “retirement centers” were not included because residents in those types of communities are “usually self-sufficient, similar to an individual living in an apartment.”

As president of the CSRA Trau­ma So­ciety, Greg Brooks has taught the state-mandated fire safety class to more than 5,000 workers in the Augusta area. He thinks retirement centers should be required to pass the course because it covers key elements of fire safety, such as developing and implementing an evacuation plan through conducting and evaluating drills.

“It might have helped,” said Brooks, a paramedic firefighter at Savannah River Site. “People need to be on the same page and know exactly what to do. It should be ingrained in their minds how to react when disaster strikes.”

Laura Wright, a spokeswoman for the Georgia fire marshal’s office, said personal care and assisted living homes were mandated to pass fire safety training last year as part of a “community risk reduction plan targeting higher-risk individuals” who have “slow evacuation capabilities.”

The goal was to “help reduce the potential for loss of life.”

“These facilities have some people who are challenged to provide prompt evacuation – less than 3 minutes – from the facility without direction or assistance,” she said in an e-mail. “They are semi-dependent upon staff being available to give direction, guidance and limited assistance.”

The safety course includes burn care instructions and early fire detection and protection features, including smoke alarms, portable fire extinguishers, means of exit, and alarm and sprinkler systems.

At Marshall Square, residents said, it took about an hour after the first fire alarms sounded and smoke was seen in the billiards room about 3 a.m. before emergency crews arrived. Many said they stayed in their rooms as directed by an internal document distributed by the resort at a Dec. 4 residents meeting.

Brooks said he has taught the fire safety course at least once a month for the past 12 years, including at Columbia County’s Brandon Wilde and Camellia Walk assisted living facilities, and that Marshall Square’s policy is opposite of the one he endorses.

Brooks’ next course will be at at Doctors Hospital’s H2U building at 1305 Interstate Parkway.

“We train staff to get out, stay out and not go back inside,” Brooks said.

He said there is a segment advising people with mobility issues to “protect in place” in a location with fire-resistant doors and walls that is approved by the fire department, but he described it as a “last-ditch effort.”

Dawn Panowich, the executive director of Camellia Walk, described the course as a “huge benefit” for the Evans assisted living facility.

She said the home’s staff orients residents when they move in on the building’s fire safety features and procedures, and conducts a “physical evacuation” at least once a year to ensure the process is done correctly.

Sarah Roberts, 91, moved into Camellia Walk after she was displaced from her apartment at Marshall Square, said her daughter Sally Griffin, 61, of Augusta.

Griffin said her mother immediately evacuated after she went into the hallway to see why fire alarms started going off about 3:30 a.m.

“She opened the door and heard screams of ‘Fire! Fire! Go outside!’ ” Roberts said.

Griffin said although Camellia Walk is much smaller, she feels her mother is safer and more secure with staffers having to pass state certification on fire safety.

Wright said at this time the state fire marshal’s office is not considering requiring retirement staffers to pass fire safety certification. She said the style of living in retirement resorts “usually isn’t to the point of providing personal care services, and therefore the individuals are normally responsive and capable of independent living and care.”

Brooks and Griffin said the state has a “moral responsibility” to the elderly and should reconsider.

“Fires are going to happen,” Brooks said. “If people know what to do, we can reduce fatalities.”

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