Strategies for a Safer, Healthier Retirement Community

As Baby Boomers hit retirement age (and beyond), the demand for retirement living may soon be at an all-time high. The number of seniors worldwide is projected to increase by 56% by 2030. Retirement communities need to make sure they are offering safe, sustainable living, both today and into the future.

Fire prevention in retirement poses a number of unique challenges. These can include:

  • Planning for residents with varying physical and cognitive difficulties.

  • Balancing modern design preferences and sustainability goals with fire prevention and containment.

  • Developing fire response and evacuation plans for all times of day and night.

  • Reducing the risk of fire without interfering with residents’ independence or lifestyle.

A systematic approach to planning for fire safety, knowing your residents’ needs and utilizing all the smoke and fire containment technology available is essential to keeping your community safe.

Understanding Your Requirements

A residential fire of any kind is disruptive and stressful, but there have been a number of recent fires in retirement communities that have put these facilities under a microscope. In many jurisdictions, they are now facing increased penalties for being unprepared in the event of a fire.

Whether you are building a new community or retrofitting an existing one, it is important for architects, builders and operators to understand the current building and fire codes in their area. Once the building is in operation, site staff should also know their roles and responsibilities, both in terms of regular maintenance, training and evacuation.

Know Your Residents

How a facility responds in the event of a fire depends on their residents. The fire response plan for an independent living community will be significantly different from a plan where residents require full-time nursing care. While a ‘buddy system’ is recommended to support evacuations, know where this approach will be a help or a hindrance for your residents. If most of your residents need help moving around, a buddy system would slow down evacuation efforts. However, if your residents are more independent, a buddy system would help ensure all residents exit the building safely.

It’s also important to balance fire safety with ensuring residents are enjoying their expected independence and quality of life. While one of the major areas of fire risk is kitchens and cooktops, if your facility promises independent living including meal preparation, you’ll need to control those risks remotely, since managing central cooking facilities are not an option.

Balance Design, Sustainability and Safety

With the growing focus on green buildings and sustainability, fire safety can become challenging. Many common areas in retirement facilities now boast open concept design with lots of natural lighting. While these areas are enjoyable for day-to-day use, they provide additional risks in the event of a fire.

One way to control the spread of fire and smoke through open areas is through the use of smoke and fire curtains. Using these, open areas can be divided into compartments and may even be effectively separated from those areas of the facility where the fire is located. Reducing smoke infiltration until help can arrive keeps residents safer longer.

In multi-story buildings, staff will need to know which residents on upper floors are able to evacuate safely via stairwells and which will require assistance. Some stairwells may need containment using smoke and fire curtains. These curtains can also play a critical role in keeping smoke and fire out of halls to facilitate evacuation where residents are able to do so.

Install and Test


Standard fire detection and response equipment should be made available throughout your facility and tested regularly. Minimum requirements vary by jurisdiction but typically include:

  • Fire Alarms: When triggered, a fire alarm system needs to be heard in all residential and common areas, with alarms set loud enough to be detected by residents who may be sleeping or hard of hearing. Visual aids such as flashing lights can help support the system and facilitate evacuation.

  • Sprinklers: Given the added risk of residents with limited mobility, sprinklers can be critical in limiting the spread of a fire before first responders arrive. In kitchens, wet chemical sprinklers can be installed to limit the risk of grease fires on cooktops.

  • Fire Extinguishers: As part of a fire response plan, staff should be trained in the safe use of fire extinguishers and a regular inspection and maintenance program implemented. Where possible, residents who are able can also be trained and assist in using fire extinguishers in the event of a fire.

  • Smoke and Fire Curtains: In many facilities, a full evacuation may not be possible. While sprinklers extinguish flames and protect the building, you need a barrier against smoke. Smoke and fire curtains control smoke and fire incursion, turn large open spaces into smaller ones and facilitate egress by residents and entry by emergency personnel.

Stay Educated

Fire safety requirements for retirement communities, as well as for all other types of facilities, continue to evolve, as do technological advances for fire prevention and control. Visit Smoke Guard’s blog for more information on ways to keep your residents and building safe.