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Sound the Alarm

Written by Heidi Nestor, Writer and Editor, Life Alert

It’s Aunt Helen’s 80th birthday and you’re going to buy her a candle of her favorite scent; your mother complains of how cold she is and you figure a space heater would be a great gift to give for Mother’s day; Grandpa has a hard time sleeping due to freezing digits so you surprise him with an electric blanket. These are thoughtful gifts; however, they are gifts with the potential to harm. 

Mental capacities tend to weaken as the body ages, seniors forget to blow out candles or turn off heaters thus leaving them vulnerable towards an unexpected fire.  Add immobility due to medication, arthritis, or any other aliment and you have a recipe for disaster. 

According to the article, Fire and the Older Adult, released by the U.S. Fire Administration:

The predominate cause of fires in which an older adult was killed are smoking, open flame, heating, and suspicious acts.  Cooking, open flames, smoking, and heating caused more fires that resulted in injuries among the elderly than other fire causes. (3)

The article goes on to say that more than 1000 Americans aged 65 years and older die each year in home fires and more that 2000 are injured.  Moreover, the elderly are 2.5 times more likely to die in a residential fire than the rest of the population, as Jean from Glenview, Illinois almost found out when her elderly aunt was in trouble:

Although my 94 year old aunt has a full time caregiver, the caregiver was out during this incident.  Caregiver had left eggs boiling on the stove.  Life Alert detected the smoke, told my aunt that the Fire Department was on the way and contacted me.   I couldn’t reach my aunt by phone because the firemen had taken her on balcony for fresh air while the condo was aired out.  By the time I got there, fire dept was leaving, most of the air had cleared, and my aunt was relieved!  So was I.  Thanks!

Although Jean’s aunt had a caregiver most elderly people are home alone during the day having to take care of themselves, which means, opening a can of soup and heating it up for lunch.  This sounds innocent enough but not when the elder is having a “senior moment.” Steve from Ashton, MD discovered this on his own:

Fell asleep in another room when food was on the kitchen stove cooking.  The smoke alarm resulted in firemen coming to the house.

Many of us have at one time or another set the stove on too high or kept food cooking too long.  But when this happens to an elderly person the results can be more devastating.  Having a Life Alert Monitored Smoke and Heat Fire Protection System can notify the fire department before things get out of control as Tony from New Jersey tells us:

A fire somehow started in the oven and smoke was coming out of the vents on the stove which set off the smoke detector and Life Alert Alarm.  I was able to tell them what happened and they called the fire dept.  I was able to get out of the house.  Life Alert saved my life.  Thank you.

Olfactic impairments increase for seniors with each passing year and recent research indicates that people over 60 have “30 percent of…some olfactory impairment.  By age 80, this percentage has risen to over 60 percent” (Fire and the Older Adult, 14).  The U.S. Fire Administration makes a direct link between age and being able to detect smoke in the home:

The sense of smell diminishes as people age.  In older adults, this loss can occur in tandem with other physical and mental problems that are themselves fire and fire injury risks. (13)

The article adds, “Recent research…indicates that the sense of smell is not effective at detecting smoke or fires during sleep”, and goes on to say that 40% of elder fire casualties occur when sleeping.  By the time smoke is discovered, it may be too late for the senior to react as Shirley from Hazlehurst, MS testifies:

Smoke from the boiler on the stove set alarm off.  I was alerted by Life Alert before I smelled the fumes, and was instructed to get out of the house.  I never felt alone, the Fire Department was here and Life Alert was also.  Thank God for Life Alert.

Though it’s always a good idea to have a smoke detector in the house, when a person is elderly and either sleeping or drowsy due to medication, that smoke detector may only be able to sound off whereas a Life Alert Monitored Smoke and Heat Fire Protection System will warned the occupant and send a signal to our dispatch center to notify the fire department.  Michi in Eatontown, NJ tells us about the time his Life Alert Smoke Detector notified the fire department when his wife fell asleep unaware of any problems:

The smoke alarm was set off by a pot that was left on the stove.  My wife was unaware of the smoke because she was sleeping.  She became aware of what was going on by a knock at the door from the fire department.  All our contacts were notified.  It was handled well.  Thank you.

O.k., so now you’re convinced, open flames and seniors can be a dangerous combination and buying Aunt Helen that scented candle may not be a good idea.  So to show her you really care you’re going to buy her a smoke detector.  Well, here’s another statistic you may want to consider, 60 percent of elders over 80 have a hearing impediment according to the US Fire Administration.  Their research concludes that, “hearing impairments affect 37% of all Americans 65 years and older” (15), and loss of hearing increases even more the older one gets.

Furthermore, the U.S. Fire Administration discovered evidence suggesting that older Americans have difficulty hearing the smoke alarm while sleeping:

In 2003, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a 2 year study to investigate smoke alarm waking effectiveness among children and older adult after research indicated that those groups had difficulty hearing or responding to the sound from smoke alarms. (16)

Standard fire alarms just make noise to warn an occupant but if the senior is hearing impaired or a sleep on medication they might not hear the alarm at all.  Whereas when Life Alert’s Monitored Smoke and Heat Fire Protection System is activated, we don’t just sound the alarm, we notify the fire department too.  This kind of early detection can mean the difference between life and death, and we may be able get an elderly person out of a dangerous situation quickly. 

Another factor to consider is elder reaction time to an emergency.  Basic aging disabilities hinder mobility and can result in fire fatalities.

In 1999, approximately 20 percent of older Americans were classified as “chronically disabled”.  Many others, as many as half of the older population, suffer from some form of disability or mobility impairment.  Thus, the ability of older adults to react to situations, respond to fires, and escape burning structures is hampered when their movement is slowed or impaired. (Fire and the Older Adult, 16)

Slow reaction time for a senior can be fatal but when help is just minutes away your loved one can be rescued in a timely manner.  Emergency reaction time is key.  Perhaps you may be thinking that is the very reason why we have 911.  However, you may want to consider Sandy from Vancouver, WA experience:

Fire!  Could not get through to 911 because of a holiday.  Life Alert got through.

We were very happy to help Sandy, Jean’s aunt, Tony, Michi and Shirley, and the many members who testify that Life Alert alarms saved their lives but what if you or your elderly loved aren’t home?  Is the severity of the risk just as important?

Consider this, seniors live on a fixed income and at their age it’s almost impossible to regain the financial security after a devastating fire.  Homeowner’s insurance will only payout a claim settlement and will not be able to replace the years of personal valuables such as photos, jewelry, china, or great grandma’s vase.   When seconds matter having a direct line to help can make the difference between being able to salvage valuable heirlooms versus total loss.

Arlene in Carlsbad experienced this first hand:

Left pot on stove – no one home except my dog.  Life Alert alarm contacted my daughter and the fire department.  If it wasn’t for them, the whole house could have burned down.

It’s times like these that we remember that our furry family members could have been a fire casualty too.

Life Alert will notify you, those on your emergency contact list, and the fire department in the event of a fire.  Moreover, if you have more than one Life Alert Monitored Smoke and Heat Fire Protection System in the home, our dispatch center can determine which part of the house is in trouble and inform the fire department allowing firemen to react even quicker.  Having a direct line into the fire department provides protection and peace of mind at all times and this kind of security can leave you with nothing to be alarmed about.

If you think fire could pose a danger to you or an elderly loved one there are many ways you can safeguard the home. Such as:

  • Provide smokers with large, deep ashtrays, and NEVER smoke in bed.
  • Make sure space heaters have space and there is nothing around them.
  • Stay by the stove while cooking and try to avoid sitting down if possible.  This will reduce the risk of falling asleep.
  • Don’t over load an electrical socket.
  • Look for and replace faulty wiring.
  • Plan and practice an escape route from the home.
  • Plan an escape route around you or your elderly relative’s abilities.
  • Enroll yourself and/or the elders in your family into a local educational protection program for seniors.

Fire education and prevention for seniors will address necessary actions that can be taken to reduce the risk of injury or fatality.  Additionally, it can help save the lives by teaching your elderly loved ones how to create a safe environment and follow evacuation procedures.

So, instead of getting Aunt Helen that scented candle, play it safe and enroll her into a fire prevention program and buy her a Life Alert Monitored Smoke and Heat Fire Protection System.  You might just save her life…and her little dog too.


Works Cited:
U.S. Fire Administration. Fire and the Older Adult. Homeland Security. January 2006.
November 19, 2009


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