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Joyce Endee

Failed fire drills force Arches to relocate residents

The Arches in Northfield is a supportive care facility for people with Alzheimer’s. A series of fire drills found some residents were unable to evacuate, and the state has asked for these more acute-care residents to be moved. Donna Rhodes. (click for larger version)
January 13, 2010
NORTHFIELD — The Arches, an Alzheimer's care facility on Summer Street in Northfield, was recently ordered to cut the number of residents in order to come into compliance with requirements of the State's Bureau of Licensing and Certification and the Tilton-Northfield Fire Department.

The privately owned facility has been housing residents on two floors of the rambling wood structure since 2000. Over the past few years, The Arches has been noted as having safety issues with some of the occupants. Fire Chief Stephen Carrier said fire drills lead by the TNFD found many residents could not evacuate in a timely manner. Some had medical issues that prevented quick evacuation, while others were lacking cognitive abilities to leave the building under their own power. While there are sprinkler and alarm systems in the building, the balloon-style construction would still allow for a fire to spread rapidly.

"If the building's still occupied when we arrive, you can't expect two or three firefighters arriving first to remove people under fire and smoke conditions. Someone's going to suffer," Carrier said.

Back in 2002 The Arches was granted a "defend in place" status where residents would all gather in one room and the fire department would know their location. Carrier said when he was hired as fire chief he found there was no fire protection rating in the room and residents failed to gather there during fire drills. For those reasons Carrier was forced to revoke the defend in place status, and residents were again required to leave the building in an emergency. The drills he conducted, however, were being stopped after sometimes as much as 13 minutes when people were discovered to still be in their rooms. Ideally they should all be out in three to five minutes, he said.

On Dec. 17 Carrier said he had to make the tough decision to close the second floor of the building when another fire drill found evacuations of the building were too dangerous. One woman fell down a flight of stairs trying to leave and others were still in bed.

At that time representatives from Health and Human Services and the Bureau of Licensing and Certification also determined that seven of the people residing at the Arches were too acutely ill to live there any longer.

"The issue here was that it was not built to the Health Care chapter of the Life Safety Code. It falls under the Residential Board and Care chapter," said bureau manager John Martin.

The state is concerned that the level of care needed for seven of the patients was beyond what owner BettyAnn Salchli and her staff could deliver. The facility is not equipped to provide chronic convalescent care; therefore people must be able to assist in their own daily care.

"They're now at a nursing level of care and need to be moved to other facilities," Martin said.

In 2006 Salchli had indicated to the state that she would build a second facility on the property for those in need of more medically-oriented care but that never happened. As a result of the failed fire drills and increased care requirements for some residents, Martin said steps finally had to be taken to insure their safety.

"They have a 30-day deadline to relocate seven of the people living there. As long as good faith efforts are made, we could grant an extension, but we are working with them and the families to make this as smooth as possible," said Martin.

Salchli has been in touch with local nursing homes and said they have been very supportive to her during this transfer process. The hardest part has been for the residents involved. They and their families have been very happy with the care at The Arches, she said, making it tough for them to leave.

"No one wants to go. We've had a lot of success here. The families have to feel comfortable about this move, too, but everyone's been working together," she said.

Medicaid workers and others from Health and Human Services have been conducting meetings with the families during the past few weeks, explaining options and assisting them in finding new residences with the necessary care levels.

"The nursing homes have been wonderful and we were able to find some openings. We're just moving forward as low-key as possible as we try to comply with the state," she said.

Salchli plans to ramp up her previous plans to construct a 30-bed facility on the five acres of grounds The Arches sits on. The timing in the past, she said, "just wasn't right," and while she had obtained the proper permits for the building, she wasn't able to follow through with the construction at that time. She now hopes to reapply and get construction underway as soon as she can.

In the meantime Salchli is looking to bring in other residents who can meet the evacuation requirements so that she may re-open the second floor. She has some disagreements with the issues cited and said conversations continue between herself, the state and Tilton-Northfield Fire Department.

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