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Care homes to come under closer scrutiny

Assistant Albany Fire Department Chief Sebon Burns says all community care facilities in the city that have kitchen equipment and use it to prepare food must have a hood fire suppression system, like the one he is shown inspecting last week at the AFD's Jefferson Street station.

Assistant Albany Fire Department Chief Sebon Burns says all community care facilities in the city that have kitchen equipment and use it to prepare food must have a hood fire suppression system, like the one he is shown inspecting last week at the AFD's Jefferson Street station.

ALBANY, Ga. — One of the byproducts of the city of Albany's recent actions concerning and discussions of community living arrangements and personal care homes is going to impact every such facility in the city, according to officials with the Albany Fire Department.

FIRE CODE CHECKLIST

Guidelines for new and existing Albany buildings that will be used as community living homes:

— All facilities must be licensed by the state of Georgia.

— In any dwelling unit of two rooms or more, every sleeping room and every living area shall have not less than one primary and one secondary means of escape.

— Doors in the facility shall be no less than 32 inches wide.

— Address numbers or approved building identification shall be placed in accordance with provisions of the International Fire Code.

— Bedrooms for residents shall be separated from halls, corridors and other rooms by floor-to-ceiling walls capable of resisting fire for no less than a half-hour.

— Sleeping room doors shall be substantial doors such as those 1 3/4-inch thick or other construction of equal or greater stability and fire integrity.

— A room shall not be used as a bedroom where more than one-half of the room height is below ground level.

— Bedrooms may have locks on doors if both the staff and occupant are provided keys. Double-cylinder locks are prohibited.

— Exterior doors shall be equipped with locks that do not require keys to open from the inside.

— A fire alarm meeting minimum requirements shall be installed.

— Smoke alarms shall be installed according to state code and in living areas on all levels.

— Strobe alarms shall be installed when required for hearing-impaired residents.

— Carbon monoxide detectors shall be provided in a residence where natural gas, LP gas or heating oil is used to heat the residence or in a residence in which a wood-burning fireplace or stove is present.

— At least one approved fire extinguisher shall be provided on each occupied floor and in existing basements.

— Required fire extinguishers shall be inspected and maintained annually.

— Space heaters shall not be allowed.

— Fire screens and protective devices shall be used with fireplaces, stoves and heaters.

— A water temperature monitor or a scald valve shall be installed to ensure safety. Heated water may not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

— The facility must maintain a staffing ratio at all times sufficient to ensure that all residents can meet prompt evacuation capability.

— Fire drills shall be conducted every month at alternating times and shifts. All fire drills shall be documented.

— An evacuation plan with clear instructions shall be available within each residence.

— Each sleeping room will have a secondary exit with a minimum net clear opening of 5.7 square feet. Minimum net clear height opening for windows shall be 24 inches, and minimum net clear width opening shall be 20 inches.

— If a window exceeds 20 feet above grade level, it shall not be used as an emergency exit.

— Any facility in which cooking equipment is present and used that produces grease-laden vapors shall have an approved hood fire suppression system and shall have a Class K portable fire extinguisher mounted within 30 feet of cooking equipment.

— All facilities that house nine or more occupants must install and maintain an automatic fire suppression sprinkler system.

— Facilities serving a resident dependent upon a wheelchair or other mechanical device for mobility shall have at least two exits from the facility remote from each other.

Closer scrutiny of state law by AFD officials, sparked by the city's discussion of personal and community care homes, led the fire department to compile a list of requirements that must be met by all such facilities that care for one or more non-related occupants. Some items on the list may require costly alterations by the care homes, even those that may have been operating in the city for years.

"Around 2010, when the state knew it would be taking residents out of state-run personal care facilities (because of a Department of Justice ruling), Georgia law changed to reflect stricter standards for community living facilities," Albany Fire Chief James Carswell said. "I think the concern was that these — for lack of a better term — clients receive the best care possible.

"When the City Commission started discussing this issue at its meetings, we took a closer look at applicable law. We found that there are some requirements that have not been a part of our inspections in the past, but will be from now on. We have only one concern in this matter: the safety of the residents."

Part of the regulations that caught AFD officials' attention was found in the safety fire commissioner's state minimum fire safety standards. Section 120-3-3-.02 states, in part: "The governing authority of any municipality or county in this state is authorized to enforce the state minimum fire safety standards on all buildings and structures except one-family and two-family dwellings."

Under the new community living arrangement definition written into state Code (25-2-4), such properties are no longer considered one- and two-family residences, but have a classification and code section of their own. Section 120 defines community living arrangements as:

"... (A)ny residence, whether operated for profit or not ... that undertakes through its ownership or management to provide or arrange for the provision of daily personal services, supports, care or treatment exclusively for two or more adults who are not related to the owner or administrator by blood or marriage and whose residential services are financially supported, in whole or in part, by funds designated through the Department of Human Resources ..."

Assistant APD Fire Chief Sebon Burns said city records show 10 such community living arrangements in Albany, and the AFD has noted three more not listed by the city. Recent discussions by the Albany City Commission, which led to consecutive 120-day moratoriums on such facilities, came after health care groups in the city sought to bring more such personal care homes into the community.

"We want to get the word out as soon as possible to let these businesses know — and when they get paid to care for individuals, no matter who's paying, they are businesses — that we're going to uphold state regulations," Assistant Chief Ron Rowe said.

Some of the regulations that may require upgrades by new or existing care facilities include installation of more "substantial" sleeping room doors; installation of regulation fire alarms, smoke alarms, strobe alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers; installation of scald valves in water systems; installation of secondary exits in all sleeping rooms; installation of a hood fire suppression system in any facility that has and uses cooking equipment; installation of a fire suppression sprinkler system in a facility that houses nine or more occupants; and provision of at least two separate handicap ramp exits in facilities that house residents dependent on a wheelchair or other mechanical device for mobility.

"National statistics show that nine of 10 people who die in house fires are deceased before an emergency call is even made," Carswell said. "We only get a shot at 10 percent of those victims, and without these additional safeguards, we don't even get that one-in-10 shot.

"If you go all the way back to the '70s, before smoke detectors were mandated, as many as 10,000 people a year were losing their lives in fires in this country. Now the average is 3,000 to 3,500, and last year that number dropped to 2,650. These types of universal safeguards do make a dramatic difference."

AFD plans to conduct courtesy inspections of existing community and personal care facilities starting around April. The department expects to note violations under the stricter state laws and give violators an opportunity to make necessary upgrades.

"Unless there are gross violations, we don't plan to shut anyone down," Burns said. "We're looking for voluntary cooperation. We'll do follow-up inspections based on the severity of the violations we find."

Carswell said he expects facility owners to complain about the cost of some of the required upgrades, but he said the department will not consider such arguments.

"We're not allowed by law to use financial hardship as a consideration when we inspect these facilities," he said. "At the end of the day, our main concern is making sure clients of these facilities are as safe from fire as possible. Some of these individuals live in these institutions for as many as 30 or 40 years; it's the only life they know. They deserve as good a quality of life as they can get.

"We will apply these laws equally, regardless. We're not in the business of making judgments, of deciding who's 'good' or 'bad.' We know we're going to hear from some people who say, 'We don't have to do things that way in this county or that city.' But we're only concerned with ones that apply here. At the end of the day, facilities here will comply with the codes in Albany and Dougherty County."

Comments

FryarTuk 1 year, 5 months ago

AFD is an excellent agency. They inspect thoroughly and do not hesitate to write you up and follow through. I am glad to see they are working to provide safe residential sites for these people. If any one is asking they are a consolidated agency just as EMS and a couple others and provide incredibly sound, effective services. Wouldn't it be something if the city and county merged law enforcement, elected positions and legal representatives into consolidated units and delivered more cost effective and capable services.

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