Stan Szpytek headshot
Stan Szpytek

Editor’s Note: Read more about senior living operators’ experiences related to the Marshall Fire here.

Emergencies and disasters don’t always follow a standard pattern, as two senior living providers recently learned in evacuating residents during the Marshall Fire in Colorado.

Stan Szpytek, president of Fire and Life Safety Inc. and a frequent contributor to McKnight’s Senior Living, recently wrote about the importance of having a disaster plan in place for the Arizona Health Care Association weekly member update.

“The fast-moving wildfire that devastated communities north of Denver recently revealed disasters don’t always prescribe to a seasonal schedule,” wrote the consultant to the association and other long-term care organizations. “Emergency preparedness is not simply a compliance requirement, but rather a concept and culture designed to save lives and property,” he added.

The first thing communities should perform to prepare for a disaster is a hazard vulnerability assessment to identify the threats and perils in the community, said Szpytek, a former deputy fire chief and fire marshal with more than 40 years of experience in life safety compliance and emergency preparedness. The assessment sets the foundation for disaster and emergency planning, he added.

“Hazard vulnerability assessment goes beyond just looking at the campus or the compound itself,” Szpytek said. “It’s looking out in the community and identifying those threats.”

Disasters no longer follow a seasonal schedule, as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Marshall Fire prove, he said. The area where the wildfire spread typically would have been covered in snow at this time of year. It wasn’t, however, leaving a “vulnerable fire load” accompanied by winds that “just exploded” the fire. 

“It was kind of like a perfect storm scenario for that disaster,” Szpytek said. 

Given Juniper Village at Louisville Memory Care’s and Balfour Senior Living’s success in evacuating residents and staff members without any deaths or serious injuries speaks to having an incident command system and leadership in place to manage the emergency, he said. 

Elements of a good emergency plan, Szpytek said, include:

  • Conducting a hazard vulnerability assessment to identify potential threats
  • Establishing an incident command system
  • Identifying leadership to manage an emergency
  • Identifying suitable relocation sites for vulnerable populations
  • Securing transportation
  • Having multiple evacuation routes
  • Conducting safety checks of facilities before returning