Nursing students help nursing home patients when grass fire closes in

A fast-moving grass fire threatened this wing of a Columbia nursing home Monday afternoon.

Fire evacuations were the last thing on Innocent Okechukwu's mind when he and his fellow nursing students arrived at a Columbia nursing home Monday.

The Sinclair School of Nursing students were there for some hands-on instruction. That instruction became frighteningly realistic when winds drove a grass fire toward the Columbia Health Care Center.

"I was halfway down the hallway, and there was smoke that you could see through the window," Okechukwu said.

The students immediately helped staff move patients out of the wing closest to the fire. The flames tore through a wooden fence and crept right up to the concrete sidewalk ringing the building.

"We had to get everyone out of the whole corridor in a matter of seconds to minutes because the smoke was so close to the building," nursing student Sullavan O'Hara said. "It was just kind of pouring into the rooms."

Moving frail patients in a hurry is a delicate proposition. Nursing student Elizabeth Aronson said staff need to know whether it is safe to unplug the medical equipment a patient is using as well as physical barriers in the building. Even moving a patient into the hall requires knowledge of available electrical outlets depending on the person's needs.

Dispatch records show at least 11 outside fire calls over the course of nine hours Monday in Boone County alone. Firefighters told KRCG 13 Monday's dry, windy conditions meant any grass fire could spread quickly. Battalion Chief John Metz said the 20-25 percent humidity was very low for Missouri. More importantly, he said the vegetation was not taking up any moisture from the soil.

"The dirt is wet, but the vegetation on top is very dry and burns very rapidly," he said.

Metz said the fire started behind an auto parts store on Paris Road, but firefighters did not yet know what caused it. Fortunately, the nursing home suffered no damage except for losing a portion of the fence. The nursing students all said the fire taught them how to assist their charges in a crisis.

"As future nurses, we have to recognize that situations dealing with patients and where we work at could turn south really quickly," Okechukwu said.

Metz said burning outside fires inside the Columbia city limits is illegal without a special burn permit.