Ind. Bills Would Require Nursing Homes to Install Sprinkler Systems

February 20, 2007

Legislation that would require all of Indiana’s nursing homes to install sprinkler systems within five years is gaining traction in the General Assembly.

Supporters who have pushed lawmakers to enact stricter nursing home regulations the past two years came close to victory in 2006 before the bill died in the session’s closing hours.

Robyn Grant of United Senior Action of Indiana said not requiring sprinklers or smoke alarms in nursing homes is like playing “Russian roulette.”

“Our thought is we need to get this in place before we have a tragedy. We really believe we are playing Russian roulette with our residents’ lives every day,” said Grant, the group’s long-term care policy director.

This session, proposals for comprehensive fire prevention in nursing homes are contained in two nearly identical bills in the House and Senate that unanimously passed each chamber. Both bills would require full sprinkler systems in the homes by 2012.

If no changes are made to the bills in the opposite chambers, the new laws would go to the governor for his signature.

Nursing home fires in Connecticut and Tennessee that claimed 31 lives in 2003 gave traction to the issue. Those fires occurred in nursing homes that were not required to have sprinklers and the fires occurred at night, when staffing is at its lowest, according to a 2004 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Each fire broke out in a resident’s room and most of the deaths were blamed on smoke inhalation rather than burns.

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, 17 long-term care centers have a partial sprinkler system and 10 have no sprinkler system at all.

Mary Ann Maroon, director of public affairs for the Indiana Health Care Association, said the state has 522 long-term care centers, which gives the state a 94 percent rate of buildings with sprinklers.

Twenty-two other states rank lower than Indiana, she said.

Those without systems were all built before 1986 and were grandfathered in under new regulations.

“There is no higher obligation than to ensure the safety of residents, so we decided to push for sprinklers in all facilities,” Maroon said. “We understand there is a financial impact. That’s why we are trying for a five-year installation.”

A similar phase-in will allow for smaller homes run by nonprofit groups to scrape together money, search for advantageous financing or possibly take advantage of state dollars that might be available.

Jim Leich, president of the Indiana Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, argued that retrofitting old masonry construction is an expensive proposition.

Maroon and others estimate it would cost about $240,000 for an average center to add a sprinkler system.

In November, a resident suffered minor burns in a fire at a southern Indiana nursing home. Although the room had two sprinklers, the fire did not generate enough heat to set them off.

The original legislative push was just for sprinklers, but that has changed into a measure requiring smoke alarms in individual resident rooms in the next five years. Those can either be hard-wired or battery-operated, to cut down on expense.

After the 2003 fires, the federal government required buildings without sprinkler systems to have smoke alarms in resident rooms as of last May.

Smoke detectors are already required in common areas and hallways.

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