Six years ago, as a resident of an assisted living facility in Pennsylvania, I awoke at 2:00 one bitterly-cold morning to the unmistakable, eye-watering, nasal-stinging, throat constricting smell of burning rubber and electrical wiring.

Fire!

Someone had inadvertently placed greasy kitchen rags in the industrial dryer and the laundry room was now fully involved in a fire on the first floor.

Residents evacuated the building, and marched toward the small, two-story farm house that served as short-term housing for guests visiting the facility — and was the agreed-upon evacuation point in the event of a fire.

A light winter mix of rain, sleet and snow soon covered the shivering, bare shoulders of those women and men who, in all the confusion, were unable to pick up a house coat or robe. I remember thinking how the safety of that two-story house was now only minutes away.

But at that very moment, the line of residents stopped its forward motion and stalled.

Why would the line stop? I asked myself.

I looked ahead at the front door. It was closed and locked.  Suddenly it became clear that the Admin. Director has misplaced the key to the house, and with no way to enter the house, elderly residents began stacking up like jets over Kennedy.

Thank God for the fire department. When the first trucks arrived, they kicked in the door to the cheers of some very grateful residents.

That was years ago. I now live in another facility and  we’ve recently had three fire drills in as many months.  In every drill, the PCAs were unable to carry out the simplest instruction set to the residents. No one knew what to do! Picture it — halls filled with confused, startled, frightened, half-dressed men and women assaulted by the sights and sounds of a fire alarm system.

It’s pathetic and I fear that someday, in the event of a real fire — the kind we had six years ago — residents will die. 

It’s only a question of when and how many.