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Larson, King Propose Greater Fire Protection for Nursing Homes

Location: Washington, DC

December 8, 2005


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congressmen John B. Larson, (D-CT), and Peter T. King, (R-NY) introduced legislation today to improve fire safety in nursing homes by encouraging universal installation of life automatic sprinklers within the next five years.

The bipartisan Nursing Home Fire Safety Act of 2005 would provide financial assistance for long-term care facilities to install life-saving sprinkler systems while urging the Centers of Medicare and Medicare of Congress to adopt the latest fire safety standards - the 2006 Life Safety Code - which include a requirement that all nursing homes should be fully equipped with sprinklers. CMS oversees homes that receive federal funding.

Both industry and government officials have cited cost as the greatest barrier to homes adding sprinklers. The bill addresses that problem by providing low-income loans as well as grants to qualifying homes for installing sprinklers throughout their facilities. It authorizes $450 million for loans and $100 million for grants over five years.

Larson has pursued legislation since 2003 when fires in nursing homes in Hartford, Conn. and Nashville, Tenn. that had no sprinklers killed 31 patients.

"As millions of Americans visit their friends and family in nursing homes in this holiday season, they want to know that their loves ones are safe from the threat of fire," Larson said. "It would disturb many Americans to learn that the Government Accountability Office estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the 17,000 nursing homes across the country still lack a fire sprinkler system."

"We must ensure that everything is done to protect our nursing homes," King stated. "By providing low interest loans and grants to install sprinkler systems and implement the latest safety standards, we are taking the steps necessary to prevent this senseless loss of life."

In a review of nursing home fire safety following the Hartford and Nashville fires, the Government Accountability Office determined that the tragedies could be averted had sprinklers been installed, noting that no multiple-death fires had ever occurred in a long-term care facility that had fully automatic sprinklers. Underscoring the particular vulnerability of the elderly and sick population who reside in nursing homes, the GAO also concluded that, in general, federal oversight of fire safety standards was weak.

CMS mandates only new and renovated nursing homes to install full sprinkler systems. CMS responded to the GAO report by requiring all other nursing homes to install battery-operated smoke alarms.

"The Hartford and Nashville fires demonstrated the terrible and unacceptable consequences of ignoring this issue," Larson added. "While Tennessee and Connecticut took steps to increase fire safety in nursing homes as a result of these tragic events, the federal government has only taken small steps to increase fire safety. Protecting nursing home residents from fire is a shared responsibility between the long term care industry and the federal government. The industry has demonstrated that it is ready to step up-but they cannot do it alone. It is time for Congress to take action to protect our most frail and vulnerable from the threat of fire - and prevent these senseless tragedies in the future."

Connecticut and Tennessee both required that all nursing homes have full sprinkler protection in response to the fatal fires there. Connecticut extended its deadline for compliance after nursing homes said that financing difficulties made it difficult to make the improvements in time.

To date, 12 members of Congress have co-sponsored the measure. In addition, a broad cross-section of more than a dozen long-term care organizations, fire protection groups, and patient advocates have submitted letters of support.

"The first priority among nursing home providers is the delivery of quality care in a safe and secure environment - resident safety is integral to providing quality care," stated Bruce Yarwood, President and CEO of the American Health Care Association, the leading representative of nursing home care providers which has endorsed the fire safety measure. "Despite the fact nursing home fires are rare, the Nursing Home Fire Safety Act will bring about a renewed attention on fire prevention essential to ensuring that every facility in the nation is equipped with a modern, effective fire sprinkling system. We praise Representatives Larson and King for their leadership on this important legislation."

The National Fire Protection Association, which writes and recommends fire safety standards, has called for all nursing homes in the United States to be equipped with sprinkler systems.

"NFPA, as a century-old fire safety advocate, has an obligation to be an advocate and lead on issues crucial to safety, in this case, the need is for greater safety for nursing home residents," said President James M. Shannon, whose organization is also supporting the bill. "These tragedies have taught us that we must do more to keep our elderly and disabled safe from fire. We know that fire sprinklers can control fires where they start and alleviate the burdens placed on staff to deal with the fire while relocating or evacuating patients. Sprinklers must be included in our stock of existing nursing homes."

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