The heat of the moment: inside the Quakers Hill fire

A particularly poignant presentation at the recent ACS NSW & ACT State Conference gave a nod to fire sprinklers, and a timely reminder that any fire in a nursing home is truly a firefighter’s greatest challenge.

By Stephen Easton

Prepare for the worst, do realistic emergency drills and call ‘000’ if there is a fire, even when an automatic fire alarm has already been triggered.

This was the advice given by Superintendent Christopher Jurgeit, manager of the Fire and Rescue NSW Structural Fire Safety Unit, to delegates at the ACS NSW & ACT State Conference last week.

The highly experienced firefighter explained the fire brigade’s operating procedures to the audience, and shared insights from the perspective of the fire crews that fought the tragic fire at Quakers Hill Nursing Home last year.

“I would urge people to do realistic emergency training,” he said. “Don’t just go through the motions. Don’t assume the fire service is on the way; make sure they are by ringing ‘000’. And don’t assume Quakers Hill can’t happen to you. It can, so be prepared for it.”

Mr Jurgeit later played a video of a test conducted by Fire and Rescue NSW, which showed two similar fires in similar rooms, both intended to replicate the environment inside the nursing home, one with a fire sprinkler and one without. 

“The bottom line is that the room without sprinklers [in the video] was totally destroyed,” he told delegates.

“The one with the sprinkler could probably have been cleaned up and had a resident back in there later that day. Sprinklers do two things – they obviously put fires out but the other thing is they are always connected to an automatic fire alarm as well, so if your other system fails, there’s another alert that goes out.”

Domain Principal, which owns Quakers Hill Nursing Home, is rebuilding the facility with fire sprinklers, and will retrofit them to all of its aged care facilities that do not currently have them, managing director Gary Barnier said in April.

Mr Jurgeit explained that fire crew safety comes first, followed by saving life, and lastly protection of property, guided by the principle that “we’ll risk a lot to save a lot; we’ll risk a little to save a little, and we’ll risk nothing to save what can’t be saved”.

“At Quakers Hill, there was a lot to be gained from some pretty severe strategies,” he said. “It was just unbelievable, some of the things [the fire crews] did.”

The fire, which Mr Jurgeit said had probably contributed to 19 deaths and directly caused “10 or 11” of those, was an example of a worst-case scenario, according to the Fire and Rescue NSW operational debrief he quoted in his presentation.

Above: Christopher Jurgeit from Fire and Rescue NSW speaks at the ACS NSW & ACT State Conference.

“The rescue of 88 elderly, frail, sick and mostly non-ambulatory patients impacted by heat, smoke and destruction by substantial fire represents the most challenging scenario firefighters could ever be confronted with,” the debriefing document states. 

Firefighters use a system of alarm levels to manage resources. Escalation to each level means more fire crews and equipment are deployed to the scene.

The first crew to arrive at Quakers Hill were not aware that two fires were burning, he said, but it wasn’t long before the emergency was escalated to the tenth alarm level.

“At [4:53am], we were called by an automatic fire alarm. The fire crew arrived six minutes later. We had been to that nursing home 38 times in the last decade; 36 of those times had been false alarms, and two were for minor things.”

He explained that firefighters responding to an automatic alarm at five o’clock in the morning, at a nursing home or similar facility, could have been forgiven for thinking it was likely to be another false alarm, in the absence of a specific ‘000’ call.

Mr Jurgeit did not criticise the actions of staff, who were waiting to guide the firefighters to a small fire near the entrance to the facility and were not immediately aware that a second, larger fire was burning.

But he estimated that a call to emergency services to confirm what details were known – that a fire was underway at the nursing home – would have saved around five to ten minutes. 

“Probably the biggest thing to consider out of that, is that there was no ‘000’ call at all. The staff relied on the automatic alarm, which they knew had been triggered. If they had called ‘000’, we would have been notified and would have upgraded to a second-level alarm right away before the crew had even arrived.”

The search and rescue operation was made particularly dangerous and difficult by fierce heat and thick, black smoke, and other factors common to many nursing homes such as the limited number of staff on-site, the difficulties of getting some ‘tucked-in’ residents out of beds, and some being connected to medical equipment.

“One of the things we found in one of the wings was that we had problems with a bed getting caught on debris, and that blocked a lot of other evacuations, which was not particularly good. We also found that the wheels on some beds weren’t working.”

The NSW Government is currently engaged in a fact-finding process to understand the likely costs of retrofitting fire sprinklers, and how long a transitional period would be required, if legislation were passed to make them mandatory in all new and exisiting residential care facilities.

Tags: acs-nsw-act, fire, fire-and-rescue-nsw, nsw-government, quakers-hill-nursing-home,

4 thoughts on “The heat of the moment: inside the Quakers Hill fire

  1. Thank GOD all nursing homes in Victoria MUST have sprinklers, we joke that in event of a fire we need to know how to swim! However in light of QHill it is no joke. In event of fire with an operating sprinkler system I can only see a ‘possible’ 1 death, that of the person who lit the fire or who’s room it is in.
    There is no mention of unopenable smoke doors, or was this just a falicy spread by the media?

  2. Makes me wonder why no staff member rang 000…?? what if the alarm system failed.

  3. Its so unfortunate that our society allows tragedies to occur like this BEFORE we put mitigating controls in place to preserve life. Our business has for years been training and providing aged care and health care with ‘life preventing’ techniques in how to prepare and respond to fire/emergency situations. Simply relying on ‘fire sprinklers’ is not only going to be the answer, but have well trained and well rehearsed personnel is needed to raise the allow and evacuate people.

  4. This tragedy should send shock waves throughout the Health system. In the aftermath of this fire how can we continue to about our daily business with a “she’ll be right mate” attitude? The real issue in all of this that people, individuals, need to take fire safety/emergency training more seriously. There are methods and systems and training provided for all staff on a regular basis, but do we take it seriously and apply ourselves to knowing what to do? Let’s move from doing mandatory “requirements” to doing mandatory “neccesities”, then we will find our responses to emergencies being far more effective. Effective decision making in emergencies comes out of the knowledge we have combined with THINKING!
    Don’t assume, be aware and prepare.

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