Stan Szpytek headshot
Stan Szpytek

At the most basic level, senior living communities provide residents, staff members and visitors a safe and secure environment of care and services. Implementing and maintaining acceptable levels of life safety and security in those types of communities, however, is not “basic” at all.

State and local codes primarily regulate senior living communities that provide assisted living, memory care and independent living options. To achieve optimal safety conditions, several fire protection and life safety systems are integrated into such properties.

Although a great deal of oversight is in place to help ensure the reliability of fire protection systems, there are times when mechanical and electrical systems are vulnerable. For example, fire protection systems such as wet sprinkler systems can be exposed to environmental conditions, including freezing temperatures, that can impair operation. When frozen pipes thaw, they typically break, rendering a critical fire protection and life safety system inoperable.

A devastating fire in a Tennessee assisted living community in late 2022 ignited while a fire watch was in place in the building, due to unexpected frigid temperatures. Those temperatures caused the fire sprinkler system to freeze and placed it out of service until repairs could be initiated. The facility initiated a fire watch while the system was impaired, but a fast-moving fire occurred during the period of time that the fire sprinkler system was inoperable, and a resident died.

A fire watch procedure is designed to monitor a building for smoke and fire conditions when fire protection systems are compromised, but it was not enough to prevent a tragic loss in this particular situation.

Senior living communities should train staff members to understand the significance of fire protection systems and the vulnerabilities that exist when they are out of service. Informed decisions need to be made when a system goes out of service to determine if a Fire Watch is appropriate or if a building should be evacuated when fire protection systems are compromised.  When one of these critical systems goes down due to a mechanical or electrical malfunction, facilities should activate their emergency operations plan and establish an incident management team to effectively manage the situation just like any other emergency incident or disaster.

In addition to fire protection systems such as fire sprinkler and fire alarm systems, there are other safety systems integrated into the built-environment designed to safeguard residents, and those systems rely on technology and electrical power. When those systems are compromised, life safety can be at risk.

Many senior living communities that provide assisted living and memory support services are equipped with sophisticated electronic safety systems, including door alarms, wander management solutions and delayed egress locks. Those systems are designed to keep residents safe and secure under normal conditions, as well as to provide them with an unimpeded path out of the building when evacuation is required during an emergency.

There are times when these systems are compromised, representing a significant life safety vulnerability. For example, when the building’s fire alarm system activates, or a power failure occurs, some of those systems are designed to disengage to allow safe egress during an emergency. Fire drills as well as scheduled and unscheduled power disruptions can disengage some of these systems as well. 

Once again, it is essential to train senior living staff members to understand the security and elopement risks that exist when those systems are disengaged either during a real-world emergency or drill. Appropriate measures need to be in place to reset or re-arm those critical systems as quickly and efficiently as possible, to reduce the risk of elopement or unauthorized entry into a facility.  

Fire and life safety compliance does not happen by accident in a senior living community. Ensuring a safe and secure environment of care requires the integration of fire protection and life safety systems into the built environment. All staff members should be trained on a regular basis to be aware of the consequences when fire protection or life safety systems are compromised to help them understand what measures are needed to restore those systems in the quickest possible manner and reduce the potential for an adverse incident.

Stan Szpytek is the president of the national consulting firm Fire and Life Safety Inc., based in Mesa, AZ. He is a consultant for the American Assisted Living Association and is the life safety/disaster planning consultant for the Arizona Health Care Association, the California Association of Health Facilities and the Utah Health Care Association. Szpytek is a former deputy fire chief and fire marshal with more than 40 years of experience in life safety compliance and emergency preparedness. For more information, visit or e-mail Szpytek at [email protected].