Storage issues within the built environment of senior living communities have challenged management teams for as long as those types of properties have been in existence. The need for additional equipment, supplies and materials for infection control purposes during a pandemic has magnified the problem.

Of course, part of the challenge starts during the design phase of the communities, where a major objective is to build as much revenue-producing residential space as possible, oftentimes within a limited footprint. Due to capacity restrictions, storage sometimes is being placed in areas that represent safety hazards, risk exposures and potential compliance issues.

Building construction standards and life safety compliance in assisted living facilities are generally regulated by state and local authorities.  Senior living communities typically are regulated by local codes unless they have specific levels of licensure on campus (ALF, skilled nursing, memory care, etc.) where other regulations apply.  Although there are variances from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, storage typically is required to be in a protected space that has a hazardous area designation. This means that walls and ceilings in storage areas usually are constructed with materials having a specific fire-resistance rating (minimally one hour) along with rated fire doors that include self-closing devices. In new construction, fire sprinkler protection also is part of the requirements, the concept being that large volumes of combustible material represents a higher fire risk, so the material (equipment, supplies, etc.) needs to be separated from other areas of the building, especially the means of egress.

Emergencies require more equipment, supplies

The COVID-19 public health emergency, along with other emergency scenarios that may require a facility to “shelter-in-place,” obviously dictates the need for additional equipment and supplies. Professionals such as architects responsible for designing those types of properties likely did not anticipate the overwhelming amount of material needed to manage a public health emergency or potential disasters such as hurricanes or prolonged power disruptions in an assisted living community. It is not uncommon for code enforcement officials, risk managers and others who provide safety oversight to observe unauthorized storage in service corridors, resident hallways, unoccupied resident rooms, stairwell landings and other places where storage is strictly prohibited.

Simply using the rationale that your facility or buildings on campus do not have enough space in protected storage rooms for necessary infection control supplies (boxes of masks, gowns, sanitizers, etc.) or other disaster-related supplies is not an acceptable reason to place storage of any type within an unprotected area. Beyond the potential citations or deficiencies an operator may receive, a hazardous condition is being created that may not only compromise evacuation capabilities but also may represent a direct safety hazard to residents and staff members. Improper storage practices can reduce clear exit width as well as create a situation where items can topple onto building occupants.

Strategies to consider

One strategy to consider is having your procurement team work closely with the logistics professionals at the different vendors your community engages to develop supply chain schedules, to positively address this important matter. Alternate delivery schedules for supplies, equipment and materials needed for infection control measures and disaster management can be considered to help optimize the delivery pipelines so a facility can manage storage practices in a safe and compliant manner. Simply adding extra deliveries and reducing the amount of material at the facility may be one solution to this problem.

Another remedy may be to re-organize your storage rooms to accommodate equipment and supplies more efficiently. It is not uncommon to observe inefficient use of storage space within a facility.

Of course, storage practices always must be mindful of required clearance zones around fire sprinkler heads (18 inches) and electrical equipment including circuit breaker boxes (36 inches). Where allowed by local codes and ordinances, obtaining portable storage containers that can be placed on the property also can provide temporary storage solutions. 

Additional storage capacity may be obtained in senior living communities by assessing the available space that may be present in designated resident storage areas. Some assisted living communities, such as those associated with independent living campuses, have storage capacity for residents’ personal storage needs beyond the space within their residential units. Although those particular storage rooms are specifically designed for residents’ use, they may be considered during times of emergency. Often times, there is a considerable amount of available storage capacity within resident storage rooms. Engaging the cooperation of residents and their families to use under-used storage areas during an emergency may represent a safe and compliant temporary solution. 

Finally, senior housing communities may want to contact their professional associations or purchasing groups to see whether they can provide perspective or direct support on this specific logistical matter. In consideration of other infectious disease outbreaks, disasters or supply chain issues that may be on the horizon, in-house storage and supply chain management should be part of every senior living community’s emergency preparedness program.

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 Nursing 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 and has more than 40 years of experience in life safety compliance and emergency preparedness. For more information, visit or e-mail Szpytek at [email protected].

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