After Nursing Home Fire, Fire Marshall Wants to Review Model Code

Originally published by: Idaho StatesmanNovember 24, 2017

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Editor’s Note: The following article provides insight into potential motivations behind future proposed changes to the existing model code.

An eastern Idaho nursing home destroyed by fire met all applicable fire codes, the Idaho state fire marshal says, but he's going to recommend those codes be reviewed on a national level.

Fire Marshal Knute Sandahl said Friday that he helped investigate the fire that destroyed the Safe Haven Health Care facility in Pocatello early on Nov. 18.

All 49 residents plus staff made it out, with four to eight suffering smoke inhalation and a firefighter sustaining a knee injury. Estimated damage is greater than $2 million.

Sandahl said the building's attic sprinkler system was abandoned in 2007 because national fire codes for the facility used by Idaho don't require an operating sprinkler system in unoccupied areas. He said the fire started in the wood-framed attic and spread.

"We'll be making recommendations that the code be reviewed for possible changes on a national basis," he said. "Are we keeping people as safe as we can or do we need to modify this particular section of code?"

He said Idaho operates under the International Fire Code and National Fire Protection Association codes.

He also mentioned a fire in Pennsylvania at the Barclay Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester, near Philadelphia, which killed four people, injured more than two dozen and displaced 133 residents. Investigators are still trying to determine the origin and cause of that fire.

"I would find it very hard to believe the codes aren't going to be reviewed on a national basis," Sandahl said.

He said the Pocatello facility did have a working sprinkler system and that a small number of sprinkler heads activated, though they were overwhelmed by the fire and there wasn't much water pressure because firefighters at that point were pumping thousands of gallons of water onto the blaze. He said the working sprinkler system was knocked out when the roof collapsed.

The Pocatello Fire Department said investigators determined an electrical problem likely started the fire.

The facility in Pocatello specializes in care for those with behavioral needs. Safe Haven Health Care, which operates five facilities in Idaho, in a statement on Wednesday that residents have been relocated to various care centers.

"The most important task at hand right now is making sure our residents are getting the care they need and deserve, and that we can take care of our employees," said Scott Burpee, president and CEO.

Burpee said most personal belongings were destroyed in the fire, and various groups have come forward to organize donations that are being delivered to residents.