Care Home Residents Unable to Escape Fire

By ThinkReliability Staff

A tragic fire at a care home for residents dependent on caregivers occurred in Pingdingshan, China on the night of May 25, 2015. Of the 51 residents housed at the 130-bed care home, 38 were killed and 6 injured.

It is tempting to declare the fire as the “root cause” of the tragedy. However, doing so limits the analysis (and thus potential solutions) to only prevention of fires. While many potential improvements in fire prevention at this and other structures with high-risk occupants can be identified, it’s also important to identify solutions that increase the probability of occupants being able to successfully escape a fire.

To ensure that the investigation develops the broadest possible range of solutions, begin with the impact to the goals. In this case, the primary goal impacted was that of resident safety – 38 residents died and 6 were injured. Most residents were unable to escape, impacting the resident services goal. The care home was completely destroyed, impacting the property goal, and it was found to not meet standards, impacting the compliance goal.

Once we’ve determined the impact to the goals, we can develop a Cause Map, or a visual diagram of cause-and-effect relationships that led to the impacted goals. Beginning with one of the impacted goals (in this case the deaths and injuries), and asking “Why” questions develops the cause-and-effect relationships. In this case, the deaths were due to the severe fire at the care home. But that isn’t the only cause. After all, the fire occurred in a facility where 51 residents were (presumably) sleeping, and there were a few residents who were able to escape with their lives.

This means that the cause-and-effect relationship of “fire kills resident” is accurate, but not complete. The effect of the deaths resulted not only from the fire, but from the residents being unable to escape. This gives us two different lines of questioning and possible solutions.

A severe fire results from a fire being initiated and spreading. Heat, fuel and oxygen are required in order to initiate a fire. Oxygen is present in the atmosphere. As in most fires due to destruction of evidence, the heat (or ignition) source has not been identified, but the national work safety agency investigation did find “irregularities” in the electrical system, which could be a potential source. While the initial fuel source is not clear, the care home was constructed with highly flammable materials, which allowed the spread of the fire.

The residents in the care home were dependent on caregivers and so were generally unable to escape without help. Unfortunately help was in short supply. Although residents complained of a shortage of caregivers, it’s not clear how many caregivers were on duty at the time of the fire. Shortage of caregivers is a huge problem in China due to the large percentage of the population that is older, which resulted from the one child policy of previous generations. It’s estimated there are 200,000 caregivers for the elderly in China, and 10 million are needed. In addition, the national work safety agency investigation found that the escape routes in the care home were poorly designed, making it difficult for anyone to escape.

After the tragedy, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called on others to “draw lessons from the accident, checking all potential safety hazards to avoid similar incidents.” To avoid deaths from fire, that involves not only reducing the risk of fire, but making sure all people, regardless of ability, are able to escape.

To view the analysis of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above. To read about an arson at a care home in Australia that killed 11 and spurred a law requiring installation of automatic sprinkler systems, click here.