Installing a fire-suppressing sprinkler system in a senior care home — where people can be slow to get on their feet and get out — can save a lot of lives.

With a $110,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Ashland Fire & Rescue (AFR) did just that at Oxford Gardens Senior Care Home on Glendale Avenue in south Ashland. The home's owner-operator, Kathleen Petersen, says that, after installation was complete, that “I had a (small) fire years ago and I haven’t slept easily since then, but this is amazing. I don’t worry about lives being lost. I can finally sleep through the night.”

AFR worked with Medford Fire-Rescue on the grant funds, with AFR bringing area contractors in for a class on how to install the systems in existing structures without serious damage to walls and ceilings, says Margueritte Hickman, a division chief and fire Marshall for AFR. A home fire sprinkler system has also been installed in A Living Opportunities Group Home in Medford as part of this grant.

The Ashland and Medford departments also used grant money to build a Fire Demonstration Safety Box, that looks like a cargo containers, converted to show two “rooms” that could be set on fire. One had sprinklers and one didn’t. It was a real convincer, she says, when you see how quickly fire spread in the non-sprinkler side and how it devastated everything. The sprinkled side barely got going and it prevented the air from filling with deadly smoke.

A nice thing about the sprinkler system is that it all doesn’t go off at once, but rather only when flames trigger it in the area needing water — therefore keeping damage to a minimum, she says.

The law requires that foster care home owners be able to evacuate everyone in three minutes, but Petersen says, with old folks who may have both mental and physical challenges, that’s virtually impossible and that means sprinklers should be mandatory. They are in new construction (for all structures), but retrofitting an older structure is more costly.

Petersen’s retrofit cost $8,000 and was done quietly in 2.5 days, with residents still in the building. The cost in new construction is about $1.50 a square foot. Existing structures vary but cost more.

The system also includes a big red bell outside, which can be rung to alert or wake neighbors to protect their homes and call the fire department.

What’s to be done about the half dozen senior foster homes in Ashland that have no sprinkler system?

“That’s a good question,” says Hickman. “It’s up to the owners. No laws require it. Of course we want to see everyone with a smoke alarm. But if you have smoke alarms and sprinklers, the chance of surviving goes up 85 percent.” Sprinkler systems also qualify for decreased fire insurance premiums, offsetting a portion of installation costs.

Part of Petersen’s restlessness while trying to sleep comes from the fact she’s read about two senior foster care homes in Medford burning over the past 25 years, with considerable loss of life, including the children of the owner.

The two-year grant, which is expiring now, was used to educate and help firefighters throughout Jackson and Josephine Counties.

“I feel my residents can be evacuated safely now,” says Petersen, “and that wouldn’t be happening without sprinklers.”

—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.