life, non fiction, nursing home, short story

The Fire Alarm Story from the Nursing Home

A few weeks ago, I posted on here that there had been a fire alarm at the nursing home where I work. The single most terrifying words to ever hear, when working in a second floor dementia unit at a nursing home, are “This is NOT a Drill! “

So, there we were. It was about 8 pm. Luckily the hospice aides were still with us. They usually work from about 4om to 8:30 pm. had it been a half hour later, there would only have been 3 of us, to move all of the residents, including lifting heavy people out of their beds and getting them into wheelchairs.

There were 3 of us , plus 3 hospice aides there, on the unit. The hospice aides were great and stayed with us, until the danger was cleared.

The alarm system at a nursing facility, is not the same as what you have in your home. It is extra loud and there are all kinds of buzzers and lights flashing, in addition to the alarm ringing noises. The noise and the flashing lights are enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure through the roof.

In addition, there was a terrible problem with communication to the main nurse station. Since we were upstairs, on the second floor, we had no idea where the fire was, or what exit we should be taking people towards. At first we did not even know if it was a real fire.

Upon trying to contact the nurse station with our walkie talkies, we quickly found out that they could not hear us and we could not hear them well, over the sounds of the alarms. I was trying to ask them which way to take the residents. The response that I heard was “take everyone to a common area”

This idea of a common area was confusing, based on the way the dementia unit is set up. This is a lock down unit, with a coded door. The unit is sectioned away from the rest of the facility, in order to contain the people with Alzheimer’s disease, for their own protection.

If they were not locked into the unit, they could end up wandering outside in front of a car, going into the kitchen and getting burned and any number of possible dangers.  Also most of the are “Fall Risks,” which means that they cannot walk without falling. but they also do not remember not to get up and walk.

Many of them think they are 30 or even 19 and they do not remember that they are in a wheelchair, and cannot walk by themselves without falling. This was a frightening issue during the fire incident, because we were afraid to lose track of anyone or leave anyone in a place where they might get up and fall.

In addition, these alarms are blaring and the lights are flashing and everyone is feeling that “fight or flight” mode in their body. We wanted to move them to the proper place, but where was the proper place?

What is the “common area” ? I was speaking into the walkie talkie and they could not hear me asking “DO you want us to keep them in the lounge area ?” “Do you want us to bring them out of the lock down area, into the hallway” …”DO you want us to bring them downstairs?”

No one could hear my questions. We had no idea where they wanted us to bring them all. SO, we guessed.

We started to bring all the residents in their wheelchairs, into the hallway, outside of the lounge , but still in the dementia lock down area. Some residents had to be gotten out of bed.

We had trouble even communicating with each other, over the extreme noise of the alarm system. And the longer the alarms kept going, the longer our brains and bodies stayed on “high alert” with blood pressure elevated and the whole body in that frightening “life and death” emergency mode.

The supervisor working with me that night had us take the residents down the hall. towards the back stairs.

Each bedroom was checked. As we were going along, we closed the door to each room that was cleared, and placed a pillow on the floor, outside the bedroom door. The pillow is an alert that the particular room has been checked and cleared.

The pillow system is  great, because there is no time to be checking rooms that another worker already cleared. As it was, we were having trouble communicating because of the extreme noise.

Let me tell you something about the stairs….We would never get everyone out ! There simply would not be time.

It is terrifying that In the midst of this situation, there dawns this realization on you that….We Would Never Get Everyone Out.

How would we get people down the stairs? The ones that can walk, do not walk well. It would be a very slow process, walking one old person down the stairs, and keeping them from falling,

Then what?

The wheelchairs don’t go down stairs. The residents cannot walk. We are supposed to take one at a time, lay them on a sheet, and with one person holding each end of the sheet…..drag them down the stairs with the sheet.

How difficult would this be? How long would it take? Do you think that argumentative residents that will throw their grilled cheese sandwich at you during lunch…are just going to allow you to lay them on a sheet….and just cooperate ….

…while we drag them down a hard set of stairs, inevitably banging them and hurting them a little bit, on the way down?

Do you think we could even get them to cooperate enough to lie down on a sheet? It would not happen…

Not only that…Even if we got one resident outside, what would happen to them, as we went back up to get the next one? These are the people that we have in the lock down unit, for the very reason that they are not safe to be left alone.

So, there we were. I was beginning to wonder about my own safety. Where was the fire? Was it on our floor? Was it right beneath us?  Was is blocking our exit?

After a few minutes, before we had tried to get anyone do go down the stairs, the nurse came up from downstairs and said “NO ! You have taken them to wrong place. The fire is right underneath all of you ! “

So, then we had to start all over again, and move the 25 wheelchairs down the other end of the hallway. This time they wanted us to take them out the lock down door and into the 2nd floor hallway. This we did.

By some miracle, none of the residents fell or fought us too much, or tried  to get up out of their wheelchairs.

So, the alarm is beginning to make my head hurt. It is disorienting my brain. My ears, and everyone else’s are about to bleed from listening to this alarm, for 10 or 15 minutes by now.

Then the fire department came and they cleared the danger. We were told that everything was okay now and we could return the residents to their rooms.


The alarm was still going….and going….and going…

By now, the residents were becoming very agitated, The ones that have hearing problems were the best off, but the others were becoming over stimulated by listening to this alarm, the buzzers and the flashing lights…which …would….not…..STOP !

I called down on the walkie talkie, but they could not hear what I was saying over the alarm.

“Turn off the alarm ! Pleeeeaaaase turn off the alarm. My ears are bleeding! “

“What? We can;t hear you. The alarm is still going off on your floor.?”

“Really ????”

“yes, we cannot hear you.”

“Turn off the alarm! The residents are getting combative, Sarah tried to kick me and 2 others are climbing out of their wheelchairs and they are going to fall.”

“What? We can’t hear you.Your alarm is really loud.”

“Really ? I did not notice. “

Anyway, I  gave up on the walkie talkie and I called the office from the phone in the kitchen, The alarm was going in there too, but somehow they could hear me a little bit. 

They told me….and you won’t believe it ……

“The alarm is off on the first floor, where we are The alarm seems to be still going off, where you are, The fire dept has already left. We have to call maintenance . AT HOME, and have him come in to turn it off.”

“What?  Holy crap. We cannot tolerate this for another 20 minutes. The residents cannot even hear us, when we are telling them to sit down. They are climbing up because the alarm is frightening them. ..

“The workers cannot communicate with each other. This is a major safety problem, besides the fact that my brain is going to explode right  out of my ears, any second now !! “

“Yes, we are calling Marty now. He will have to come in from his home to turn off the alarm.”

FINALLY, 20 minutes after the 1st floor alarm was cleared, which was 20 minutes after the fire dept cleared the alarm originally. The alarm was off !

I could still hear it ringing in my ears, so I had to wait a minute to be sure it was really off, and not just a dream…

“Thank you. Yay ! Yay ! The alarm is off on second floor. “

dizzy, headache, room spinning, disoriented,,,,relieved.