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Although 15 fires have erupted in high-rise apartments for the elderly in the past three years in Denver, required fire drills for residents are less frequent than citations issued to building managers for failing to conduct them, according to a report by The Denver Post this week.

The tragic fire last month at the Francis Heights Apartments, where a 79-year-old woman died, illustrates the problem – firefighters encountered chaos as they tried to respond to her apartment. During the May 31 emergency, residents opened their doors and let smoke stream into their apartments. They wandered into hallways, forcing firefighters to surrender their own oxygen masks and diverting them from fighting the fire. Management at Francis Heights was cited for failing to conduct quarterly fire drills.

A review of fire-drill policies in the buildings where more than 1,700 disabled and elderly people live shows that fire drills are never conducted. Many mangers at other privately owned high-rises for the elderly said they also don’t perform fire drills because they didn’t know they were required.

Buildings owned by the Denver Housing Authority don’t conduct drills because they are exempt from the law requiring them. Managers in those buildings said they think the fire-suppression equipment — including sprinkler systems in every apartment and hallway — is sufficient to keep residents safe and that the drills could cause more injuries than they prevent.

Some residents say they wish they drilled regularly, just for the peace of mind of knowing what to do in an emergency. Many of the elderly have mobility problems, which make the use of staircases in the event of a fire very difficult. And many residents don’t realize that they can’t access the elevators themselves during an emergency, but firefighters can use them to evacuate disabled residents.

In a typical high-rise filled with the elderly or disabled, a list in a fire-control room identifies which residents are blind, are in wheelchairs or have other disabilities. Usually when a fire breaks out, residents in the floors above and below the level where the fire started receive intercom messages instructing them to remain in their rooms.

The day after the fire at Francis, firefighters checked with facilitators there, a seniors and assisted-care center, and determined that they’ve not been conducting fire drills. Contributing to the problem was the condition of the victim’s apartment. It was cluttered with stacks of newspapers 5-feet tall and other flammable materials, hoarding behavior which is not unusual conduct for the elderly.

If you are in an apartment or nursing home, be certain to understand the emergency evacuation plan for your building. And follow the instructions given to you in writing and by intercom in the event of a fire.

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