The Katie Jane Memorial Home for the Aged located in Warrenton, MO was the location of a fire which killed 72 people, almost half of the residents, on February 17, 1957. The two-and-a-half story facility was located approximately sixty miles west of St. Louis, and housed 155 elderly people. It had been converted to a nursing home two years earlier after serving as the site for Central Wesleyan College.
The fire began at approximately 2:40 p.m. in a linen closet on the first floor. At the time, a Sunday afternoon religious service was being led by Lutheran minister Walter Schwane, who was leading a hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” A scream was heard from one of the visitors who had noticed smoke near her uncle’s room. Soon, she saw intense flames near the closet and screamed “Fire!” as she alerted everyone throughout the facility.
Within 30 minutes, the annex building became an inferno. Local residents attempted to rescue residents, however, the building’s roof eventually caved in It is reported that the flames and smoke were visible from 30 miles away.
A state official had inspected the facility just one week before the fire. After the fire, it was learned that the sister of the Nursing Home’s manager had operated a similar facility in Hillsboro, MO. That facility caught fire in 1952 and 18 people died in the fire.
The fire cause was not determined. It was later learned that the operator was operating without a valid license, was not provided with automatic sprinkler systems, had inadequate fire escapes, no alarm system, and no evacuation plan. Some residents were locked in their rooms, which was a common practice in many homes during that period.
In March, 1957, Missouri governor James T. Blair signed a bill establishing minimum safety standards for nursing homes in the state of Missouri.
Do you have a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility? If so, have you checked out the safety features of the facility? Fire is a grave concern for such facilities because many times, the occupants are not able to exit on their own. They may have physical or mental issues which may prevent them from evacuating in a safe manner. There may be limited staff on duty, especially over the nighttime hours.
Some items to note when selecting a care facility include:
- Is the building well maintained? Is the construction substantial and is each wing separated by fire walls and fire door assemblies – or at least smoke separation walls and door assemblies? When was the building constructed or last renovated and to what year’s code? An old building built to 1950’s codes and grandfathered from updates may not be the level of safety you want for your loved ones.
- Are multi-story facilities provided vertical fire cut-offs of substantial fire rated construction. Are the stair towers clearly marked?
- Is the housekeeping maintained in an orderly fashion? Make sure exit routes are not cluttered and every door is clear of obstructions.
- Is the facility equipped with fire sprinklers, fire detection systems, automatic closing doors?
- What is the occupant to staff ratio, especially at night on weekends, and on holidays? Are there enough staff on hand to effect an orderly evacuation?
- Is smoking allowed? If so, what safeguards are in place to supervise smoking activity and ensure smoking controls?
- Are evacuation routes and procedures posted? Are all exits clearly marked? Are drills carried out in a serious manner and supervised by a qualified employee or third party? If a “Defend In Place” emergency response is implemented, was the building built to facilitate this response concept? Has the staff been fully trained in “Defend In Place” procedures and understand the boundaries of each fire compartment?
Talk to the administrators and supervisors about fire safety. Your questions should be addressed thoroughly and completely.
Talk to your loved one about fire safety, what they can do to protect themselves in the event of a fire. Talk to them about closing their door at night to help prevent smoke from entering their room if a fire starts.
For more information, a good publication is U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Data Center, “Fire and the Older Adult”, FA-300/January 2006. It may be downloaded at: www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-300.pdf . Also, NFPA and many other governmental agencies publish information easily downloadable on the internet. Please take the time to research fire safety for your elder loved ones.