Missouri lawmakers debate fire safety for care centers

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 | 3:12 p.m. CDT; updated 6:40 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 11, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — It has been more than two years since a fire in a southwest Missouri group home killed 11 people, and state officials are still trying to implement safety rules created in the aftermath of the blaze.

Legislation adopted in 2007 gave long-term care facilities until the end of 2008 to install complete fire alarms and heat detector systems, while facilities with at least 20 residents were given until 2012 to install sprinkler systems.

The measure passed with just one dissenting vote in the legislature, but implementing the requirements hasn't been quite so easy.

The Department of Health and Senior Services this week is expected to take its third crack at writing regulations to implement the requirements, and a House committee on Tuesday considered legislation that supporters say would correct some problems in the 2007 law.

Debate on fire safety rules began after November 2006, when a fire that apparently smoldered in the attic of the Anderson Guest House burst through the ceiling. The fire killed 10 residents and one employee of the privately run McDonald County facility for people with mental illness and mental disability. The home lacked sprinklers.

The home's owners had been cited for previous fire safety violations at the several southwest Missouri facilities they operated. All four of their group homes are now closed, and the owners face charges of money laundering, conspiracy and health care fraud.

The original fire safety rules — drafted by the health department and state fire marshal — were shot down by a legislative committee last August amid concerns from long-term facilities that the proposed regulations went too far in requiring smoke detectors in every bedroom.

A revised set of rules was submitted recently to the same legislative committee, but was pulled so that the health department could make even more changes.

According to the state health department, one of the main changes is designed to satisfy Missouri's assisted living facilities over the type of fire obstructions that must be installed.

The health department proposed requiring "smoke barriers" instead of "smoke partitions." A barrier is essentially a fire wall, designed to stop a fire; a petition should also block a fire, but the ceiling might not meet as high of a standard as the barrier, said department spokesman Kit Wagar.

Kerri Hock, the executive director for the Missouri Assisted Living Association, had no immediate comment Tuesday. In a formal comment previously submitted about the health department's rule, Hock said the Legislature didn't intend to require "smoke barriers" in the original legislation.

Lawmakers this year also are considering several changes to the 2007 law — at least one of which comes because of the delay in implementing the regulations.

Some Missouri facilities are not in compliance with the new fire safety regulations because of missed deadlines while waiting for the health department rules to be implemented. Lawmakers have proposed giving more time, so long as long-term care facilities file a plan for how they will meet the new rules and install standard home smoke detectors in every bedroom.

Part of the problem is that lawmakers have not budgeted money for a state fund that was designed to give loans to help long-term care facilities pay for the required upgrades.

Jorgen Schlemeier, a lobbyist for the assisted living centers, told lawmakers Tuesday that has made it difficult to pay for mandated improvements, because banks aren't lending during the national recession.

The legislation also tweaks the types of facilities that must meet the new requirements. Originally those with at least 20 residents would be affected, and the legislation changes that to cover facilities licensed for at least 20 beds.

The updated fire safety legislation is sponsored by Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, whose district included the Anderson Guest House and who sponsored the 2007 law.

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