Coroner calls for social work pilot scheme to rolled out nationwide

A pilot scheme where social workers visit elderly people to assess whether their homes are a fire risk should be rolled out across the country and beyond, Norfolk’s coroner said yesterday.

William Armstrong’s comments came at the end of an inquest into the death of a pensioner in a fire at her home in Burston, near Diss, in April last year.

The pilot scheme was introduced in north Norfolk after four deaths in accidental house fires in Norfolk between April 2009 and the end of March 2010, including one incident when two older women died at a property in west Norfolk.

The inquest heard Norfolk Fire and Rescue services and Norfolk County Council’s social services had been working on the project to incorporate measures to reduce the risk of fire hazards at the homes of vulnerable adults – who are subject to involvement with social services –since March.

A first assessment of the ongoing scheme will be carried out next week when it will be decided when and how it could be rolled out across the rest of Norfolk.

The new protocol and procedures allow social workers to highlight and identify fire safety measures that might be appropriate at people’s homes and to use the fire service’s expertise.

Yesterday, Mr Armstrong called for the scheme to be rolled out nationwide and said he would be advising local authorities across the country to follow Norfolk’s lead.

He was speaking after an inquest in Norwich into the death of Pearl Stebbings, 79, who died from burns after a fire at her home in Burston on April 22 last year.

Mrs Stebbings suffered from dementia, could not walk without using a frame and was a heavy smoker, but the inquest heard that while a risk assessment had been carried out by social services, potential fire hazards were not part of it.

Mr Armstrong said: “The potential fire hazards were not included in that risk assessment because at that stage there was no procedure in place for social services to utilise the expertise of the fire service. Historically there has not been close liaison between the fire service and the social services.

“But what is encouraging from this inquest is hearing what Norfolk has done in this pilot project.

“With the two agencies working together and social services passing on potential fire hazard information to the fire service, both can help each other. I hope other authorities nationwide will follow Norfolk’s lead.”

The inquest heard Mrs Stebbings had been given a pendant push-button alarm to wear connecting to a call centre in case of emergencies but she was not wearing it at the time, though a smoke detector was fitted to her home and was working.

Mrs Stebbings had been diagnosed by a mental health nurse just days before her death as lacking the capacity to be living alone at the semi-detached bungalow which was owned by Saffron Housing Trust.

She was about to be transferred to a residential care home.

Ann Taylor, head of social care for the county council in the south of Norfolk, told the inquest that at the time of Mrs Stebbings’ death there was no specific protocol for carrying out risk assessments at people’s homes.

But she said the pilot scheme had introduced a ‘joined-up’ thinking approach that used the expertise of the fire service to prevent future deaths from fires.

She added: “Risk assessment runs through everything that a social worker does from first contact to arranging services. In Mrs Stebbings’ case this was carried out, but it was not picked up that there were potential fire hazards involved.

“With particular regard to fire risk, there was not much liaison between social services and the fire service as it was done on a case by case basis.

“But since then a dialogue has been established between the two services. A pilot scheme has been set up in north Norfolk whereby both services help put together a fire risk assessment. As part of the pilot social workers carrying out assessments will now have access to fire service expertise. One example of how it would work would be putting water in the bottom of ashtrays where a person is a heavy smoker.”

Mr Armstrong recorded a verdict of death as a result of an accidental fire at home while suffering from dementia.

Mrs Stebbings’ nephew, Kevin Mason, who attended the inquest, said afterwards that he hoped the new measures would help prevent other deaths in such tragic circumstances.

The inquest was told the likeliest cause of the blaze at Mrs Stebbings’ home was a lighted cigarette that she dropped.

The pilot scheme has been welcomed by Age UK Norfolk, whose head of development and operations, Kate Rudkin said: “We support it. Potentially it will bring huge benefits for elderly people, and the organisations that support them.”