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Report: many nursing homes still lack automatic sprinkler systems

Fire is a disaster in a nursing home or long-term care facility, where many residents are too frail or disabled to escape on their own. As a spokesperson for the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care told the New York Times for a recent report, many residents aren’t even able to get out of bed without two staff members assisting them, while others suffer from cognitive impairments that don’t allow them to understand fire alarms or follow staff directions. Worse, fires often occur at night, when staffing levels are lowest.

Although residential care facilities are required to provide a reasonably safe and secure environment, the definition of what’s reasonable often depends upon things like whether they’re in compliance with state building codes and, if they accept Medicare or Medicaid, federal regulations. As the Times reported, however, those regulations haven’t necessarily required automatic sprinkler systems, especially in older facilities.

Only 11 states currently require automatic sprinklers in residential care facilities at all. While Pennsylvania is one of them, our law allows facilities whose certificates of occupancy were issued before that rule to continue operating under the terms and conditions of their original certificate.

Since 2000, newly constructed or refurbished nursing homes that accept Medicare or Medicaid have been required to install automatic sprinklers. Existing facilities not undergoing an upgrade, however, weren’t required to retrofit their fire suppression equipment, if any.

New federal regulations just went into effect to require sprinklers for all residential nursing facilities -- at the end of a five-year compliance period. Although the deadline has passed, however, more than 1,100 of the nation’s 16,000 nursing homes still have only partial sprinkler systems or none at all, according to records collected by the National Consumer Voice.

If a facility inspected just before the deadline were to hold off complying with the new sprinkler requirement until its next inspection, the National Consumer Voice says, it might be as long as 18 months until the process of forcing compliance were complete. A spokesperson for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, however, told the Times that the agency expects nearly full compliance long before then -- and the alternative would be forcing residents to relocate.

New building codes and federal regulations can move like molasses. If you’re researching nursing homes or extended care facilities, make sure the presence of an automatic sprinkler system is high on your list.

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