Fire, rain and the elephant on the 40th floor

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

Here we go again.

Four residents of a Pennsylvania continuing care retirement community remain missing and are presumed dead after a five-alarm fire at the facility.

A week earlier, a blaze in Idaho completely destroyed a senior living community.

And down in Texas and Florida, operators are still cleaning up the water-damage from two recent hurricanes.

As anyone who has been in this business for a while will tell you, fire and water can be constant enemies. Either can inflict serious damage in almost no time at all.

Most operators take extraordinary steps to keep their residents and buildings as safe as possible. But it's not always enough. Freak storms happen. So do unexpected fires.

You just never know when such trouble might strike. But you can be sure that if and when it does, angry people will line up to demand that you be held more accountable.

Not that it's terribly hard to see why. After all, skilled care operators take care of roughly 1.5 million residents a year. Assisted living communities and other senior living settings easily double that total. So there are a lot of vulnerable seniors this sector must try to keep out of harm's way.

But I do have a question for those who always insist industry efforts are inadequate:

If you are so terribly concerned about the safety of seniors, why are you turning a blind eye to what can easily be a much bigger problem?

By that, I mean the numerous high-rise residential buildings that are not required to have installed sprinkler systems. In many cities, they are full of elderly residents. In my hometown of Chicago, quite a few of these buildings have been grandfathered out of sprinkler requirements.

And it's not just heartless building landlords who need to be held more accountable. Frankly, the problem is often the residents themselves. Many tenant associations have essentially concluded that from a cost-benefit standpoint, it's better to roll the dice and hope a fire never happens.

That is usually a safe bet. Except when it isn't.

Talk about playing with fire.

John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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