Nursing Home Fire Safety

If a fire broke out in the nursing home your loved one lives in, would they be safe? Would they get out in time.

Recent inspections show about 84 percent of Texas nursing homes have been cited for fire safety deficiencies, according to a federal report.

The Federal Government Accountability Office issued a report recently showing that nearly 60 percent of nursing homes in the nation were cited for fire safety problems in their last inspections. Texas was ninth in the nation, with 84 percent cited.

"We are playing with a time bomb locally," Lee Lutz, a Garland resident who has established family councils to improve conditions at some homes, told The Dallas Morning News for its Sunday editions.

Safety concerns have grown since nursing home fires killed 15 people in Tennessee in September and 16 people in Connecticut in February 2003. Neither facility had fire sprinklers.

A spokeswoman for Texas Department of Human Services, which regulates nursing homes, said the report's findings do not mean Texas facilities are less safe than others nationwide.

Spokeswoman Rosemary Patterson said other states may not be catching as many problems.

"Eighty-five percent were cited for deficiencies because we enforce the requirements diligently," she said. She cautioned that the numbers include minor violations such as a burned-out light bulb in an exit sign.

Beth Ferris, an Austin representative of the DeSoto-based Texas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents, said the number of homes with deficiencies is unacceptable.

And too often, the homes appeal the findings so they don't have to fix the problems, she said.

"We just need better enforcement of fire codes," she said.

The head of a nursing home industry group said Texas has been aggressive about finding and following up on deficiencies at nursing homes.

"I don't think you have to worry about admitting mama to a nursing home and worrying that there might be a fire and she might not be able to get out," said Sidney Rich, executive director of the Texas Association of Residential Care Communities in Austin.

One of the authors of the federal study agreed that the percentage of homes with deficiencies may be higher in some states because they do a better job of finding violations.

However, the findings reveal lax standards nationwide, said Walter Ochinko, an assistant director over health care at the GAO.

"We were astonished by the fact that these homes that don't have sprinklers also don't have basic things you have in your own home, like a smoke detector," he said.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service, which enforces federal fire safety, has said it plans to strengthen fire-protection standards for nursing homes and make other improvements.

Texas now requires nursing homes to have smoke detectors in hallways and fire sprinkler systems. Fifty Texas nursing homes don't have sprinkler systems because they were built before the state began requiring them in new construction in 1991, Patterson said.

Michelle Mortensen reporting.