Making senior facilities safer

Four people in their 70s and 80s were killed and two other elderly people were critically injured in a fire at a group home for people suffering from senile dementia in Nagasaki City on the night of Feb. 8.

Unfortunately this is not the first time such a tragedy has taken place. Seven people were killed in a 2006 fire at a group home in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture. A 2009 fire at a facility for elderly people in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, killed 10 people and a 2010 fire at a group home in Sapporo killed seven others.

Fire prevention measures and staffing levels at these facilities are clearly inadequate. Both the central and local governments must take steps to quickly remedy this situation.

In group homes, small numbers of people live together and receive nursing care. Those with serious medical conditions have their own rooms. This kind of living environment is thought to improve the well-being of residents.

In the case of the latest fire, the Nagasaki City government in 2010 had told the operator of the group home to install a fire shutter on the second floor, where the Feb. 8 fire started, but the operator did not comply because it was not obligatory. The city government should have taken steps to force the home to comply. The group home, occupying the first and second floors of a four-story building, was not equipped with sprinklers either because they also were not mandated by law. If sprinklers had been installed, the fire’s tragic outcome might have been prevented.

In the wake of the Omura fire, the Fire Defense Law was revised in April 2009 to require facilities with floor spaces of 275 sq. meters or more to install sprinklers. But many group homes have smaller floor spaces. The floor space of the Sapporo group home was about 250 sq. meters and that of the Nagasaki group home about 270 sq. meters. Clearly the central government should make the installment of sprinklers obligatory irrespective of floor space size.

Group home residents are eligible for nursing insurance benefits. According to the health and welfare ministry, there were some 2,200 group homes in Japan in 2002, each containing five to nine residens with senile dementia. By May 2011, the number topped 10,000. It costs about ¥3 million to install sprinklers and fire alarms in a group home with a floor space of 300 sq. meters. The central and local governments should consider beefing up subsidies to group homes to faciliate the installation of such equipment.

In addition, steps should be taken to improve the staffing of group homes. A 2009 survey of some 800 group homes show that the average annual income of group home workers was only about ¥2.16 million and that 80 percent of them had work experience of less than five years. Many homes are suffering from a shortage of staff. A certain minimum number of workers is necessary to ensure the safety of a group home. To attract workers to this industry, the government should offer subsidies to increase wages.