Potential tragedy averted at Pine Ridge Five nursing home employees treated for smoke inhalation

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   A potentially deadly fire was averted Wednesday night at Pine Ridge Care Center by quick-thinking employees who later were transported to Sycamore Shoals Hospital by Carter County Rescue Squad for treatment of smoke inhalation.
   Mike Shouse, fire chief for Elizabethton Fire Department, said the call came in around 9:02 p.m. and within an hour and 12 minutes, "we had everything under control, smoke removed, floors cleaned, and they started moving the patients back in ...
   "It was an extremely dangerous event and we all got off pretty lucky. With everything that could have went wrong, everything worked just like clockwork," Shouse said.
   The fire began in a large commercial clothes dryer, according to the fire chief.
   "They had what appeared to be four small nylon-coated mattress pads in the dryer and they overheated, started melting, and caught on fire. Of course the front of these dryers were Plexiglas and, naturally, it melted them out.
   "The fire alarms activated and two employees went to the laundry room, as they are supposed to do. When they pushed the door open to the laundry room to see if they had a problem, they were met by a lot of heavy smoke. They used three fire extinguishers on it themselves while the fire department was en route."
   Nursing home employees evacuated 32 patients from the 300 wing to another portion of the building, in accordance with protocol, Chief Shouse said.
   "No patients were injured. They did an excellent job getting those people out ... but they ate a whole lot of smoke doing their job protecting their patients. By the time you get in and get the wheels unlocked that's on these beds and get them out of there -- it's really an excellent job that they did and they're to be commended," Shouse said.
   Safety features such as automatic door closures performed perfectly, locking off one wing from another and preventing injury to patients.
   "In nursing homes any time the fire alarm is activated these hallway doors close and doors to the patients' rooms close automatically. All of them activated properly, worked wonderful, and kept any smoke from the patients. They just did a bang-up job," Shouse said.
   Gauging by the overwhelming number of responders, mutual aid cooperation among city/county agencies is alive and well.
   According to Chief Shouse, Elizabethton Fire Department responded with 11 firefighters, three pumpers and a ladder truck; the entire shift from Elizabethton Police Department and Carter County Sheriff's Department rolled on the fire as well as Sgt. Steve Galyon from Tennessee Highway Patrol. Dr. Steve May also went to the scene and checked out patients and employees.
   David Nichols, deputy EMS director for Carter County Rescue Squad, said 20 rescue personnel responded, including volunteers, paid staff and members of the High-Angle Rescue Team. The squad sent five Advanced Life Support ambulances and its wheelchair van, which is capable of transporting nine people.
   "We notified the regional communications center which is Johnson City MedCom and they notified our state EMS representative for this region, which we have to notify in cases like this," Nichols said. "We've been in contact with him and he's been in contact with Nashville. We took care of things, got them out of here, and made sure everything was A-OK."
   Shouse said Station 3's pumper truck was moved up to Station 2 during the emergency to give coverage to other areas of the city, and Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department, without being asked, brought two trucks to Food City parking lot, where they waited on stand-by to provide assistance if needed.
   According to Chief Shouse, when the call first went out from the 911 Emergency Communications District, severity of the fire was unknown. Given the response by nursing home employees, once firefighters arrived, "The fire itself was brought under control in probably 35 to 40 seconds," Shouse said. "The employees kept it contained to the dryer and then when our guys were there they didn't have a whole lot of fire they had to put out. Of course our main concern was patient safety and making sure all of those people got out.
   "We had smoke in the entire 300 wing and we removed all of the smoke out of there. They had used the fire extinguishers and they create a whole lot of powder dust. Before I would allow them to bring the patients back in, I had my guys go through and sweep out all of the hallways, their rooms, and we also even mopped the floors for them to get all of this powder up. I didn't want them to bring patients back in with respiratory problems and stuff like that and them start breathing that dust," he said.
   Nursing home personnel kept their wits about them during the emergency, Shouse said, and then when it was all over, "Needless to say, their employees were very anxiety-ridden. I guess, more or less, it set in on them, which it does on most people like that. But they did exactly what they were trained to do.
   "They have considerable amounts of fire drills every year and you could see tonight that it worked. We've had a fire there one other time up in the attic and the people did a great job then.
   "These people are really overlooked. They don't get paid a whole lot of money, and they've got a whole lot of lives in their hands. They really did a fantastic job," he said.
   Because the fire was contained to the dryer, smoke damage to the nursing home was light, according to the fire chief. "Believe it or not, they could possibly get by without having to paint it."