A Guide to Senior Fire Prevention & Developing an Escape Plan

· Updated: April 16, 2024

Fire prevention and safety should be a particular concern for older adults and their loved ones. As the National Fire Protection Association notes, seniors 65 and older carry twice the risk of injury or death in a fire compared with the general population.

These injuries and fatalities don't have to happen. For example, sprinkler systems in the home cut the risk of dying in a fire by 80 percent. Unfortunately, these systems are not an option for most seniors. On the bright side, smoke alarms, fire escape routes, smoking safety, cooking safety, and other aspects are more achievable. This guide contains a checklist of these essentials. It also discusses common fire causes and how to prevent these types of fires.

View from the Experts:
Fire Prevention and Escape Plans

Senior Fire Prevention and Safety Checklist

The checklist below outlines fire safety basics for seniors and their caregivers. There is always more that can be done (such as fire sprinklers), but these items cover the minimum.

Use Home Fire Sprinklers If Possible

Home fire sprinkler systems save lives. They decrease a person's risk of dying in a fire by 80 percent. Unfortunately, about 95 percent of homes in the United States lack these sprinklers. That is not the case in Prince George's County, Maryland. More than 20 years ago, the county started requiring new homes to have built-in sprinkler systems. The result? No fire deaths in homes with sprinklers.

Many people have only two to three minutes to safely escape from a house on fire. Homes are built with plastics and chemicals that are flammable. The furniture tends to be more combustible, too. A house can go up in flames quicker than most people imagine. Meanwhile, seniors tend to have issues with mobility, hearing, sight, breathing, or other issues. Escaping in just two or three minutes may not always be possible. Plus, seniors' skin is thinner and burns more easily.

Sprinklers can help a good deal, more than any other fire safety measure. For example, sprinklers keep fires to their room of origin 97% of the time. Much of the time, they even extinguish fires before firefighters arrive.

The cost of a system for new construction is about $1 to $1.35 per square foot covered. That translates to about $2,700 at the most for a home measuring 2,000 square feet. Retrofitting does cost more, sometimes as much as $5 to $6 per square foot.

If older adults can move into a house or community with sprinklers, they should do so. Seniors may be able to choose apartment or condo communities that have fire sprinklers in each unit and common areas. Further, California, Maryland and Washington, D.C. require fire sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes.

Senior Fire Prevention: Smoking, Cooking, and More

Smoking materials as well as cooking, heating, and electrical equipment account for most of the fire injuries and deaths among seniors. The National Fire Protection Association indicates that smoking materials are the leading cause of fire fatalities in age groups 55-64, 65-74, and 75-84. Cooking materials are the leading cause among the 85 and older set. They are the leading cause of fire injuries among all the senior age groups.

Smoking materials include cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out, 8.2 percent of seniors 65 and older smoke cigarettes. The combination of seniors and smoking materials can be especially flammable because:

Seniors are more likely to be on medications that make them drowsy. Some seniors nod off while holding lit cigarettes, pipes, and cigars.

Unattended cooking is the number one cause of fires at home, explains the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Seniors are particularly at risk of forgetting to turn the stove off or not realizing that their clothing has caught on fire. These tips help you stay safe:

  •       Always “stand by the pan” – never leave
  •       Turn pot handles toward the back of the stove to prevent accidental bumping.
  •       Keep areas around the stove clear of items that can burn.
  •       Wear oven mitts, or use potholders.
  •       Be extra careful when deep frying.
  •       Gradually heat cooking oils.
  •       Wear shirts with tight or short sleeves. Exposed skin may burn, and long, loose sleeves are more apt to catch on fire.
  •       Keep baking soda handy.

If a stove fire occurs, take these steps:

  •       Don't use water—splashing can spread fire.

To prevent scalds:

  •       Allow foods and liquids heated in the microwave to sit for at least two minutes.
  •       Install anti-scald devices on all faucets.
  •       Set hot water thermostats at 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Space heaters, electrical blankets, open fireplaces, and other heating equipment pose fire risks. Here are some guidelines for staying safe around them.

A few more things: Have a professional clean your chimneys and check your home's heating system once a year. Keep any fuel outside in a shed or a detached storage area.

Appliances, lamps, computers, and TVs are examples of electrical equipment that may cause a fire. Follow these do's and don'ts.

Seniors should use flashlights instead of candles in emergencies. For decorative purposes, battery-operated flameless candles are safer than traditional candles and are still very pretty.

General Fire Prevention Tips

Safety around cigarettes, electric blankets, electrical outlets, and other items is a big part of fire prevention. Seniors and their caregivers should also know about fire extinguishers, escape routes, and other aspects of fire safety.

Fire Extinguishers

  •       Keep fire extinguishers in multiple rooms. Make sure seniors know where they are and how to use them.
  •       Practice fire extinguisher use outside with a small, inexpensive extinguisher.
  •       Note the extinguishers' expiration dates on your calendars.
  •       Call 911 if a fire is still burning 20 seconds after you try to put it out.

Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms aren't always easy to install. If you need assistance, call the local fire department. You should call anyway because seniors often qualify for free alarms and installation.

  •       Install at least one smoke alarm per floor.
  •       Put a smoke alarm inside each bedroom and outside each bedroom/sleeping area.
  •       Test each alarm once a month.
  •       Replace the batteries twice a year.
  •       Replace the alarms themselves every 10 years.
  •       Interconnect the alarms, if possible, so that all alarms sound if one does.
  •       Ensure that seniors can hear the alarms without their hearing aids (more than half of fires occur during sleeping hours).

Hearing loss affects about 1 in every 3 seniors aged 65 to 74, and about 1 in every 2 seniors 75 and older. Traditional smoke alarms alone are not good choices for some of these seniors. Alternatives include:

  •       Devices that make mixed, low-pitched sounds after a traditional smoke alarm is activated
  •       Vibration notification appliances (pillow or bed shakers) that turn on after a traditional smoke alarm is activated
  •       Alarms with strobe lights

Escape Plans

Seniors should keep important items on their nightstand or within reach of their bed. These items commonly include eyeglasses, a telephone (landline or cellphone), hearing aids, a wheelchair, a cane, and a whistle. The whistle helps responders and others in the house locate seniors. The nightstand should also have lights or lamps that are easy for the senior to turn on.

  •       Have two escape routes in case one is blocked.
  •       Practice both routes at least two times a year.
  •       Check that seniors and others in the house can escape in three minutes or less.
  •       Ensure that doors and windows are easy for seniors to unlock and open (no keys required).
  •       Keep escape routes clear at all times. Never block stairs and doorways.
  •       Keep seniors' abilities in mind.

In a multi-story home, seniors should sleep on the ground floor and near an exit. Otherwise, they need escape ladders for rooms above ground level. Seniors should practice getting these ladders out from under the bed and escaping on them.

Ability Levels

People have less than three minutes to escape after a fire breaks out. However, seniors have varying ability levels. For example, some are in wheelchairs or use hearing aids. Some are blind.

Always keep seniors' abilities in mind for escape plans. Seniors should sleep on the ground floor of their house or apartment near an exit, if possible. They should have items such as hearing aids, glasses, or wheelchairs within easy reach of their bed.

While Escaping

If smoke is present during a fire, seniors and others in the home should cover their mouths and stay low to the floor. They should close doors as they leave each room. No stopping to gather personal belongings.

High-Rise Buildings

Many seniors live in multi-level apartment buildings or high-rise buildings with elevators. Building owners and landlords should be able to tell seniors and their caregivers if a building is fireproof. Any doors or windows with security bars should have emergency release devices.

  •       Avoid elevators. They probably are not operational during a fire, and it is dangerous to get stuck in one.
  •       Memorize how many doors are between your apartment and the stairway exit (the smoke may be too heavy for you to see clearly).

In Fireproof Buildings

Stay inside your apartment if there is a fire in the building but not in your apartment. Call 911, and give your apartment number.

In Non-Fireproof Buildings

Leave the building right away even if the fire is not in your apartment. Follow one of your fire safety escape routes. However, it may not be safe to leave through the front door of your apartment. Place the back of your hand to the door. If the door is hot, escape through a window. The same goes if the hallway has too much smoke—escape through a window. If smoke levels are not too overwhelming, stay low to the ground and cover your mouth as you navigate to a door.

Seniors, Fire Prevention and Fire Safety

Fire sprinkler systems are perhaps the most important thing that seniors can do for fire safety at home. This is because mobility limitations and other issues may prevent seniors from escaping in less than three minutes. However, sprinkler systems aren't available in many homes, buildings, and communities. They are not a realistic option for many seniors. Fortunately, smoke alarms, fire escape plans, smoking safety, cooking safety, and other aspects of fire security go a long way. Even older adults who have home sprinkler systems should practice all of these safety measures.

Additional Resources