The risk of fire in senior living communities is ever-present. Specific areas of operation, including commercial laundry rooms, are more vulnerable to fire than others.

A series of fires occurring in senior living properties recently have made the headlines. One such fire occurred in the basement of a retirement community in Manhattan, KS, at 1 p.m. on a Saturday and was controlled by the building’s fire sprinkler system. According to published reports, the fire caused damages estimated at $12,000 to the building and its contents, with no injuries reported. The cause of the fire was listed as “accidental due to overheating of material in the dyer.”

Building codes, fire prevention standards and life safety regulations for senior living communities enforced by local and state agencies are designed in part to help ensure safety and prevent fires. Those rules are highly effective when building operators abide by them specifically to prevent fires. Adverse incidents such as fires happen when operational deficiencies create unsafe conditions that ultimately lead to the ignition of combustible materials.

As a retired deputy fire chief, I responded to several fires in commercial laundry rooms in senior living communities during my 26 years with the fire department in a major metropolitan area. Every one of those fires had one or two common denominators: improper use and lack of maintenance. Those same factors are the cause of the majority of fires that occur in the commercial laundry rooms today.

Most commonly, fires in the laundry room are caused by improper use of commercial clothes dryers. This typically means that items that should not have been placed in the dryer were indeed placed in the dryer barrel and caught fire. Some of those items include micro-fiber mop heads and mixed loads of materials such as rags that previously were saturated with grease, oil or cleaning solutions. The temperatures produced in commercial clothes dryers can bring these combustible materials up to their ignition temperature and subsequently cause a fire within the dryer barrel.

The other common denominator is lack of maintenance. As a former fire marshal and currently as a fire/life safety consultant, it is not uncommon for me to observe lint traps full of combustible material such as highly flammable lint. Additionally, the mechanical areas in the rear and inside of the clothes dryers — including motors, electrical components and piping near the open flame of a natural gas-powered machine — often are covered in lint when not regularly cleaned and maintained. Imagine the area around the gas cook top in your kitchen at home covered in combustible lint. At some point, a fire is quite possible, as heat from the cooking flame eventually will cause the lint to catch fire.

The laundry room is an area of your senior living community that, similar to your commercial kitchen, requires vigilance and a strong operational commitment to prevent fires. Policies, procedures and safety protocols should be developed in accordance with manufacturer’s guidelines to help ensure the proper operation of laundry equipment. Staff members should be continuously trained on those procedures to help reduce the potential for fires.

Lint traps should be emptied regularly, and all interior and exterior surfaces should be maintained in a condition that is free of combustible materials such as lint. Again, follow the information contained in the equipments’ operating manuals and safety guidelines to help ensure proper operations and a reduced risk of fire.

Some senior living communities have developed a log to document the frequency of lint trap cleaning on a daily basis. Although there is no standard for lint trap cleaning, more frequently is better than less frequently. Most commonly, lint traps are cleaned out every one or two hours. In some cases, senior living providers have a protocol to clean out the lint trap after every load has been dried.

Maintenance and cleaning of other elements of commercial laundry equipment, including the clothes dryers, should be on your community’s preventive maintenance schedule. This type of equipment typically is inspected and comprehensively cleaned at least monthly, or more frequently depending on use. The more active the equipment is, the more frequently it should be cleaned.

Remember that dryer fires don’t only occur in a senior living community’s commercial clothes dryers. They also commonly occur in residential homes. Make sure that laundry equipment that may be installed in the single family homes or townhomes that are part of your senior living campus are properly maintained as well. The National Fire Protection Association has produced a one-page fact sheet that can be referenced to ensure fire safe conditions for residential-grade clothes dryers on your campus. (Note: This information from the NFPA also can be considered to help ensure fire safety in your own home, where fires often occur in single family residences, townhomes and apartment buildings due to lack of cleaning and maintenance of clothes dryers.)

Although the fire sprinkler system saved the day at the retirement community in Manhattan, KS, where no one was injured and property damage was not catastrophic, it is important for your team to learn from such unfortunate incidents and institute the measures presented in this article to reduce the risk of fire in your senior living community’s laundry room.

Stan Szpytek is the president of the national consulting firm Fire and Life Safety Inc., based in Mesa, AZ, and is the life safety/disaster planning consultant for the Arizona Health Care Association, California Association of Health Facilities, Utah Health Care Association and American Assisted Living Nurses 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].

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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