Editor's Desk: A burning issue deserves better answer – and soon

Share this content:

There is a scene in the George C. Scott movie "Patton," where the title character is trying to impress upon foreign colleagues that enemy forces are a little too close for safety's sake. An enemy pilot opens fire on the allies, leading Patton to beam: "I'd like to give that guy a medal!"

Though it involved far more tragic consequences than Patton's near miss, a December fire at a nursing home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula could serve as the same type of well-timed catalyst. Two residents died of smoke inhalation and dozens more were hospitalized after the fire.
The blaze struck just three days after U.S. Reps. John Larson (D-CT) and Peter King (R-NY) introduced legislation calling for sprinklers in all nursing homes. It is estimated some 2,000 nursing facilities – including the Mather Nursing Center in Ishpeming Township, MI – do not have sprinkler systems.
The Larson-King bill would raise the bar to force all (including older) facilities to become modernly equipped.
Nursing home advocates say all the right things about wanting ubiquitous sprinklers, but they also don't want to get stuck with the tab. This is understandable.
But it also must be understood that unless a more coherent message is sent to lawmakers and the voting public about nursing home sprinkler systems and who should help pay, providers are going to wind up holding the bag anyway. The damage from that — monetarily and image-wise – could be huge and long lasting.
Remember, it was fatal nursing home fires in Tennessee and Connecticut in 2003 that thrust fire-safety issues into mainstream America's living rooms. They led to a flurry of legislative proposals, new life-safety code edicts and various media investigations.
It also stoked reports such as the Government Accountability Office's July 2004 release "Recent Fires Highlight Weaknesses in Federal Standards and Oversight." The third line of that report contains a powerful observation: "There has never been a multiple-death fire in a fully sprinklered nursing home . . ."
The outcry for mandatory sprinkler systems is only going to intensify. Because winter is when especially devastating fires seem to hit, the coming months could be critical to this policy tug-of-war.
It's time for providers to leverage whatever influence they have with lawmakers – which might not be much in this case – and broker the best deal they can. And then get on with it.
James M. Berklan, Editor, McKnight's Long-Term Care News
jim.berklan@mltcn.com