Lakeland Fire Department personnel put out the fire in 20 minutes and evacuated residents to safety in less than two hours. By Tuesday night, all residents were staying with family members or relocated to two other Central Florida facilities owned by Meridian Senior Living, which owns Lake Morton Plaza.
“Although dramatic, everything worked exactly as it is supposed to work,” said Meridian Co-CEO Robert Sweet.
The building houses a senior population and is constructed to contain fire to the floor on which it originates. Residents are instructed to shelter in place – which means going to designated fire-rated areas on each floor – until firefighters come to evacuate them, said Kacy Kang, Meridian’s president and chief operations officer.
“Because this incident occurred in a high-rise building, true evacuation initially only occurs on the floor above and below the fire,” said Janel Vasallo, Lakeland Fire Department spokeswoman. “Since the fire occurred on the roof, firefighters evacuated the top floor and then worked their way down.”
Sprinkler systems inside the building didn’t activate because the fire was contained to the roof. Fire alarms on the top few floors activated.
LFD’s incident commander later called for full evacuation because of smoke. Those who could evacuate themselves did, while others got assistance from firefighters and Lake Morton Plaza staff. The elevators were inoperable, which meant evacuation via stairs.
Fires in high-rise buildings require firefighters to carry additional equipment, including extra air tanks, hoses and tools, Vasallo said. They repeatedly climbed multiple flights of stairs while wearing 75 pounds of gear in summer temperatures as they carried out residents.
As residents exited the building, volunteers from local businesses volunteered to help. Bank of America opened its air-conditioned lobby to residents as a staging area.
Citrus Connection provided buses with lift access to take the residents from Bank of America to the RP Funding Center, which opened its doors to residents for free. While there, they were fed and cared for as they waited on their family members to come get them or awaited the arrival of charter buses to take them to another facility. Fifty-two residents went home with family members and the remaining residents were relocated to other Meridian-owned facilities.
“This was a tremendous community effort,” Kang said.
Making other arrangements in events such as this requires a great deal of planning and preparation, Sweet said. It involves contacting family members, locating facilities with room to accept additional residents, organizing emergency food deliveries to feed them, ensuring all medical charts are in place, and arranging for residents to have their medications at their new location.
“There was an extensive, detailed process that had to take place before we moved our residents,” Sweet said. “We are incredibly proud of our staff for taking quick action so that by last night, every resident had a place to sleep comfortably. We’re also grateful to all of the police, fire and emergency medical personnel, and everyone in the community who sprang into action to help our residents.”
Thanks and Recognition
The following entities assisted Lake Morton Plaza residents after Tuesday’s fire.
• Lakeland Fire Department, Lakeland Police Department and Polk County Fire Rescue- Escorted residents to and from buses, and assessed all residents and staff.
• Lakeland Fire Department- Arrived on site within two minutes and quickly organized evacuation alongside staff. Polk County Fire Rescue also acted as mutual aid due to exhausted resources.
• Encompass Home Health- Coordinated pet pick-up and pet care with SPCA Florida to house displaced pets.
• Vitas Healthcare- Provided water for Lake Morton Plaza staff, residents, and first responders. They also provided gloves, incontinence products and additional supplies to residents at the RP Funding Center within two hours of evacuation.
• Kindred at Home- Provided vitals checks of all residents arriving at the RP Funding Center and performed much-needed resident care.
• Cornerstone Hospice- Delivered food to staff and residents.
• Jason A. Penrod, Esq.- Provided 300 meals that were delivered to the RP Funding Center.
• Surrounding assisted living communities including Grand Villa of Lakeland, Savannah Court of Lakeland and Westbrooke Manor in Zephyrhills offered snacks and options for housing if needed.
• Caring for Seniors Nurse Registry- Organized residents at the RP Funding Center.
• The Lake Morton Plaza staff- Put forth ongoing effort to get residents to safety quickly and to help them remain comfortable.
• Lake Morton Plaza Assistant Executive Director Jennifer McDowell- Took quick action to try extinguishing the fire before it grew, and helped get residents to safety.
• Lake Morton Plaza Wellness Director Tracy Pryce- Helped evacuate residents.
• Lake Morton Plaza Activities Director Jennifer Hess- Coordinated the evacuation, and worked to help residents maintain dignity and safety.
• Lake Morton Plaza Sales Director Jade Webster and Chef Chris Gardner- Helped evacuate residents and continued to help in other ways throughout the day.
“I am so proud of my staff for acting quickly, for caring for our residents with the utmost respect, and for their selfless attitudes toward any request I personally made of them,” said Lake Morton Plaza Executive Director Shannon Clark. “I am honored to work with such an amazing group of professionals, and absolutely impressed by them daily.”