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East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service logo
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Fires caused by vulnerable people and smoking

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 Fire damaged chair

 Fire damaged chair

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'Lifeline' call system

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'Wi-Safe Fire Angel'

'Wi-Safe Fire Angel'

How this fire happened

The gentleman suffered from poor hearing, limited sight and restricted mobility. He was visited four times a day by carers.

The property had been fitted with a ‘Lifeline’ call system and a ‘Wi Safe Fire Angel’ (with vibrating pad and strobe lights) for persons with impaired hearing.

The gentleman used incontinence products and regularly smoked a pipe which he lit with matches.

The fire occurred shortly after the gentleman had eaten his evening meal and his carer had left.

He activated the Lifeline button on his wrist and Lifeline reported the alarm to the Fire and Rescue Service.

Sadly, the gentleman was found deceased on the Firefighter’s arrival.

This is a very tragic case, but surprisingly and unfortunately there are several comparisons with a number of similar incidents.

There is an emerging picture that some vulnerable members of our community are at increased risk.

Similarities include:

  • Limited mobility, the casualty is unable to move away from the hazard.
  • Smoker, ignition source, matches, lighters, lit smoking materials.
  • Cotton or cotton/polyester clothing or bed covers are easily ignitable and add to the fire loading.
  • Incontinence products are easily ignitable and add to the fire loading. Incontinence sheets placed to protect upholstery or mattresses may not be as fire retardant as furniture and may be more prone to ignite if exposed to an ignition source.
  • Seated position, the casualty has a lap to catch ignited products, the flame and smoke will travel up the torso to the face resulting in death due to smoke inhalation and burns.

The effect it had

My father was 98 when he died and had smoked a pipe for more than 80 years. One evening he sat down after his dinner for his evening smoke and set fire to himself.

Dad grew up in Hackney, became a teacher and married in 1939. After the war he and his wife both taught in Leicester, moving to Sussex in the mid-1970’s to be closer to me and my brother.

His sight failed during his eighties and by the time he reached his mid-nineties he was quite blind in one eye and saw only shadows in the other.

As he got older his hearing also worsened and he had to wear incontinence pads.

However, despite his disabilities, he never complained and he and my mother had their seventy-first wedding anniversary in their own home in 2010.

Sadly, Dad became a widower at the end of that year but seemed to gain some comfort from smoking - at least I seemed always to be buying him tobacco!

With help he stayed in his own house, cooking his own breakfast of bacon and eggs every morning, until he had a fall in October 2011.

This dramatically changed his life as, having fractured a bone in his pelvis, he was in hospital for about three months.

His mobility was seriously impaired. However, as he got better all he wanted to do was to go home.

After evaluation, Adult Social Care set up a care package and he returned home in early January 2012.

Dad went back to his house, fitted with smoke alarms and a Lifeline call system.

Carers helped him get up in the morning and go to bed at night as well as making his meals.

His mobility was poor and he had to use a frame for support when walking. Nevertheless, he settled into this routine seeing me a couple of times a week and with carers visiting him four times a day.

On the day on which he died, he had, with help, walked around his garden as the weather was fine and sunny.

Later, he had his evening meal and was left by his carer sitting in his chair with a coffee. I can only suppose that he then decided to smoke his pipe while he listened to the radio; being blind, he was an avid radio listener.

About 20 minutes later (and I know it was only about 20 minutes, because I know when the carer who made his dinner left) I had a call from Lifeline to tell me that he had pressed the alarm button that he wore on his wrist, but was not answering.

As the operator could hear a smoke alarm in the background she had called the fire service. I drove to Dad’s house wondering what he had done now; had he once again pressed his alarm by mistake?

Had he had another fall? Why was a smoke alarm sounding? When I turned into the road where he lived I was confronted by a fire engine, an ambulance, paramedics, police, fire-fighters and smoke coming out of his front door.

Dad died, in the words of his death certificate of a cardiac arrest and thermal injury, while trying to get out of his chair having set his clothing alight: my mother always said he would set fire to himself one day.

Safety message

Without doubt the safest fire prevention action would be to stop smoking.

If this is not possible, there are other ways of reducing the risks.

  • Where possible, smoke in the company of others.
  • Ensure there is an ashtray within easy reach.
  • Only smoke fire safe Reduced Ignition Propensity (RIP) cigarettes or hand rolled tobacco. Since November 2011 all cigarettes sold in Europe must conform to RIP standards.
  • Try not to smoke when tired.
  • Try to avoid wearing loose fitting clothing. Some clothing fabrics are less ignitable than others.
  • Consider placing a fire retardant cover over the lap or wearing a smoking apron (suppliers can be found via the internet).
  • Consider using fire retardant bed covers (suppliers can be found via the internet).
  • Ensure you have a working smoke alarm and test it weekly.

There are often tell-tail signs of near-misses, these include spent matches in and around where the person regularly smokes. Look out for burn and scorch marks on clothing, bedding, upholstery and carpets.

If you are a Carer or have concerns over a vulnerable smoker please contact your Fire and Rescue Service Community Safety Team who will be able to advise on fire safety measures that can be used to help protect the individual. They may also be able to provide and install free equipment ranging from smoke detectors to sprinkler systems, some Fire and Rescue Services may also provide fire retardant lap covers and bedding.

Further information

Video footage on showing the results of experiments conducted by East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service to demonstrate the flammability of incontinence products and cotton based fabrics – Please do not try this yourself.

Do you have a similar story?

We would be interested to hear from you if you have had a similar experience to the fire detailed above, or would like to raise any related matters or even just generally comment on how useful you found our Black Museum.

Please send us your details and a comments via our on-line feedback form.



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Latest Update :
21 October 2020
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