New fire regulation troubles care homes
By JENNIFER FARRELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001
Sybil Giglio can't get out of bed anymore.
At 86, she suffers from dementia and spends most of the day sleeping or staring at a television in the corner of her room.
Now, she may have to move.
According to a state fire safety regulation that took effect in February, adult family care homes, such as the one in Hernando County where Giglio lives, must be able to evacuate within three minutes or face losing their licenses.
But operators of the homes, and state and local officials charged with enforcing the new rule, say it could make it difficult for some to keep operating and serving an important state goal: allowing people to live out their final days at home or in homelike settings.
Helen Sutton, who cares for Giglio and three other women in the five-bedroom Spring Hill home she shares with her husband, said it would be cruel to force residents through fire drills to prove they can get out in three minutes.
Besides Giglio, two other residents have become bedridden since they arrived and now receive hospice care. Sutton said it takes them about five minutes to evacuate during monthly drills.
Three years ago, she spent $5,100 to install a sprinkler system, which at that time granted the home an exception, allowing 13 minutes for evacuation.
The new rule eliminated exceptions, such as those for sprinklers and alarms.
"It seems like they're trying to knock us out of business," she said.
This summer, Sutton is due for an annual fire inspection, and she fears a failing grade will prevent the Agency for Health Care Administration from renewing her license, which allows her to care for up to five people.
"If I had to get rid of these people and put them in the nursing home, they'd die the next day," she added.
Randy Hinder, deputy chief fire marshal for Clearwater, said the matter brings into sharp focus the tension between providing senior citizens options for personalized care and drafting regulations to ensure the homes are safe. There is potential for abuse, he said, adding that his department has had trouble with some homes in the past.
"This is an epidemic proportion issue," Hinder said. "We don't want to shut them down, but we have to balance life safety."
Hinder said the issue is likely to become a problem statewide, as enforcement begins to catch on. Many local agencies, he said, may not be aware of the new rule or as quick to implement it as was Spring Hill fire inspector Dana Panozzo.
Also, Hinder said, he has seen a jump in the number of homes, which in the past did not require licenses. "They've cropped up all over," he added. "It's a far greater issue in Pinellas than in Hernando, and we just don't know it yet."
In Hillsborough County, Deputy Fire Marshal Don Goff said recently he was unaware of the change. After reading the new rule, he said: "I can see where the problem's going to lie, and I can see where the people are going to yell."
As of March 2000, AHCA had licensed 380 adult family care homes, representing 1,530 beds, but that number has likely grown, according to spokesman Pat Glynn.
The homes care for up to five aged or disabled adults -- for example, those like Giglio with dementia, or younger adults with conditions such as cerebral palsy. Jeanine McNeill, president of a Hernando County association of such homes, said the cost varies from about $700 to $2,000 a month in her area, but is less than an assisted living facility or nursing home.
The five-county region around Tampa has more than 100 of the homes, with 12 in Pinellas, 44 in Hillsborough, 14 in Pasco, 33 in Hernando and three in Citrus.
Glynn said last week that homes in Spring Hill have been the first to complain about compliance problems with the new fire regulation. "It sounds like, per the rule, they don't have any options," he said. "Certainly, that would be something we would want to look into."
Last month, Sutton got what she thought was good news. State Department of Elder Affairs officials told her they had met with representatives of the state Bureau of Fire Prevention and persuaded them to draft some exceptions, taking into account homes with alarm and sprinkler systems, for instance.
But they turned out to be wrong.
Jim Goodloe, state fire prevention bureau chief, said there are no plans to allow alternatives to the three-minute rule. He said the reason for establishing the uniform regulations to begin with was to eliminate exceptions and prevent local agencies from requiring more of adult family care homes than the state does.
"One of the purposes of making it uniform was to get away from making (sprinklers) a requirement," he said.
Goodloe said any adult family care home that can't meet the three-minute rule could simply switch licenses to become an assisted living facility, where sprinkler requirements vary, depending on the number of clients.
But Sutton said changing licenses would cost money and add unnecessary new regulatory burdens.
"We shouldn't have to go through that," she said. "The only solution should be that these people get their act together. Just because they're mad at one group of people that don't want to comply, don't take it out on the rest of us."
Gary Adkinson owns an adult family care home at 2101 Second Ave. N in St. Petersburg. His residents are ambulatory and can meet the evacuation rule, but he still doesn't like it.
"Somebody in Tallahassee dreams this up -- one hat fits all. You can't expect a hospice person to get out in three minutes," Adkinson said.
Dr. David McGrew, medical director for Hernando-Pasco Hospice, said the situation could create a drastic hardship for his patients, if they are forced out of homes where they are comfortable.
"It is classic lawmaking," he said. "What's intended and what happens are two entirely different things. . . . Our government is always trying to help people and hurting them in the process. I just think they need to keep their hands off things that are working."
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