State committee at odds over wording of fire safety law

John Ford

A state legislative committee is at odds over the phrasing of part of a new law enacted to improve fire safety at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Missouri.

The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative panel made up of six Republicans and four Democrats that reviews new laws, recently rejected safety standards at Missouri group homes.

The measure would require long term care facilities to install smoke detectors throughout the facility by the end of the year, and would later require the installation of sprinkler systems, fire alarms in smaller facilities and smoke stop partitions. It was originally sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, in response to the November 2006 fire at the Anderson Guest House that claimed the lives of 11 people, and was signed into law last summer by Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt..

“They (JCAR) are not gutting the bill,” said Wilson. “They rejected the initial rules. What they were concerned about is the definition of ‘throughout the facility’ as far as smoke detectors. That’s the crux of the matter. The state fire marshal’s office says ‘throughout the facility’ means smoke detectors in every room.”

However, Wilson said, the nursing home industry says federal standards on smoke detector placement should apply. According to Randy Cole, the state fire marshal, this means smoke detectors would be placed on 30-foot centers, or about 21 feet apart.

Cole said state statutes clearly mandate that long-term care facilities be equipped with a complete fire alarm system including, but not limited to, interconnected smoke detectors throughout the facility, automatic transmission to the fire department, dispatching agency or central monitoring company, manual pull stations at each required exit and attendant’s station, heat detectors and audible and visual alarm indicators.

“Their (JCAR’s) definition is obviously different from what we felt this section requires,” Cole said. “That section states a complete fire alarm throughout the facility. Our take is that facilities must have smoke detectors in every room, even though the facility has sprinkler systems.”

Cole said smoke detectors, even battery operated ones commonly available at hardware and department stores, are the first line of defense in detecting fires. This is because sprinkler systems are heat activated at temperatures ranging from 135 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, based on their rating.

“Obviously, a smoke detector gives earlier detection as to fire,” he said. “Federal standards as outlined by the Center for Medicaid Services commonly require at least a battery operated smoke detector in every room. The direction JCAR is taking is requiring for such detectors in hallways and considering 30-foot centers, or one every 21 feet since a smoke detector has the capacity to operate in a 21-foot radius.”

Under the new law, smoke detectors will have to be in place in all long-term care facilities by the end of the year. This could cause a dilemma, Wilson said.

“The Department of Health and Senior Services will have to ask the Secretary of State office for emergency rules, as smoke detectors have to be in place by the end of the year,” Wilson said.

“The state fire marshal’s office, obviously, felt like there needed to be smoke detectors in every room. I’m very hopeful that they will come to some kind of consensus by the end of the year.

“It was disheartening when I first heard they had rejected the order, as I understood there was some disagreement between Health and Senior Services and the state fire marshal’s office. But the bill itself, they can’t change the law.”

Cole said his office was meeting with officials from the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue. The meeting was to begin at 3:30 p.m., and Cole said would likely extend beyond 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Wilson said he personally would like to see smoke detectors in each room.

“I want these facilities to be as safe as possible,” he said. “I would prefer to err on the side of safety.”

Neosho Daily News