A devastating fire swept through a mental health facility outside Moscow last week, killing 38 of the 41 people inside and highlighting an ongoing problem in Russia: aging infrastructure is making horrendous fires like this very common, and the state isn’t doing enough about it. Sadly, the facilities hit hardest by infrastructure problems are often hospitals, particularly mental health facilities, along with orphanages and low-income housing. Russia’s most vulnerable are most at risk for serious death or injury by totally preventable fires.
Of those killed, 36 were patients, and many were in their beds, sedated for the evening. Among those who were able to respond to the alarm, getting out would have proved a challenge. The windows were barred and the space would have been chaotic and confusing with a rapidly-moving fire. The one surviving nurse, who rescued two patients, claims that no patients were restrained and no doors were locked, but that doesn’t mean escape would have been easy. Locals, too, dispute the claims about locked doors, stating that one of the emergency exits had been boarded up.
The building, made from brick with wood beams, had no sprinklers or fire suppression systems, and it took fire fighting crews an hour to respond due to distance, poor roads and problems with a ferry that might have allowed a closer fire department to reach the fire in time. Consequently, the building burned hot and fierce long before anyone could respond, effectively ensuring that the occupants would burn to death or die from smoke inhalation.
Events at this facility echo concerns raised by psychiatrists across Russia when it comes to patient safety, and with good reason. A fire at another mental health facility in 2007 killed two patients, while a 2006 fire at a rehab center killed 45 and another 2006 fire killed 63 people at a nursing home. Russia’s safety record on the whole is very poor, and governance over facilities where mental health patients are held is particularly bad. Many of the patients living at the facility that burned had been sent there by Russian courts because of their severe mental illnesses, and it’s unclear what kind of rehabilitative treatment or help they might have been receiving before the fire.
12,000 people died in fires in Russia in 2012, making it clear that this is an ongoing problem across the nation. It’s dealing with old buildings from the Soviet era, limited enforcement of building codes and failing infrastructure when it comes to supporting the country’s most marginalised. This fire may be sparking outrage in the United States and around the world, but many Russians seem surprisingly blase about it; such fires are par for the course in the country.
What will it take for things to change in Russia, and for mental health facilities to adhere to fire safety as well as general patient welfare guidelines? Agitation on the part of the mental health communities on allies will certainly play a role, and it’s already happening as people speak out about poor conditions, but stronger social support is also critical. Russians have to be ready to commit to addressing the problem too.
Photo credit: Bartosz Brzezinski