Still no answer as to why Safe Haven’s sprinklers didn’t work

Pocatello

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Fire officials are still investigating the cause of a fire that gutted the Safe Haven Care Center early Saturday morning. | Doug Lindley, Idaho State Journal

POCATELLO — The mystery has deepened as to why sprinklers installed at the Safe Haven Care Center in Pocatello failed to activate when the building caught fire over the weekend.

State officials have confirmed that the facility was cited for various operational problems in the past, and on Monday, the Pocatello Fire Department said the State Fire Marshal’s Office will assist with the investigation surrounding the fire, according to Travis Smith, Pocatello Fire Department assistant chief of operations.

“Right now, investigators are working with the building owner and the building occupant’s insurance investigators to determine the cause of the fire,” Smith told the Idaho State Journal. “We are interviewing employees to determine what they saw to try and zone in where our investigation should focus.”

First reported around midnight Saturday, authorities said the fire likely started in the facility’s attic and might have been sparked by a malfunctioning light fixture, based on what the first Pocatello firefighters on the scene reported.

The Safe Haven Care Center was equipped with sprinklers, but fire officials said that none of them activated during the fire.

“We are investigating why the fire suppression system didn’t operate as expected,” Smith said. “There is a question of whether or not the fire suppression system was turned on, and there are also some questions about whether or not the fire suppression system had some parts of it that were abandoned.”

Smith added that investigators are working to determine if the Safe Haven Care Center was granted an exception to the sprinkler system in the attic, which would have allowed that portion of the suppression unit to become inactive.

Smith said that information should be available on Tuesday, which is when state fire inspectors plan to enter the building.

While the sprinkler system in the attic may have been shut off, the Safe Haven Care Center’s fire suppression system has been inspected several times in recent years.

In August 2016, surveyors with the Department of Health and Welfare’s Bureau of Facility Standards determined “the facility failed to inspect and maintain sprinkler systems in reliable operating condition.”

In addition to issues with the sprinkler system, surveyors found the facility to be non-compliant with several other physical and operational standards, but Safe Haven Care Center officials were able to correct each deficiency.

A follow-up on Oct. 19, 2016 found the center was in substantial compliance with fire safety requirements.

Smith confirmed that the facility was inspected by the Pocatello Fire Department in January 2015, September 2016 and September 2017. No major issues with the fire suppression system were noted during those inspections.

Todd Dvorak is the director of public and media relations for Strategies 360, a communications firm contracted by Safe Haven to handle matters of public relations.

Dvorak said he is unaware of any exception granted by the Pocatello Fire Department that would have allowed Safe Haven personnel to turn off the sprinkler system in the attic.

Though none of the Terry Street medical facility’s 49 patients were injured in the fire, several suffered from smoke inhalation while being evacuated from the burning building.

It took firefighters about seven hours to get the fire under control and parts of the building continued to smolder throughout the weekend.

Smith said that a light fire crew has remained on-site in 24-hour rotations since the blaze erupted and that insurance companies are working to secure the facility with guards and chain link fencing until the investigation is complete.

Contrary to some reports, the Safe Haven Care Center was not shutting down as a result of several deficiencies found during a March inspection conducted by the Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Licensing and Certification.

Rather, the facility decided to transition from what’s called a Skilled Nursing Facility to an Assisted Living Facility.

“Safe Haven was originally a nursing home and in-patient psychiatric hospital,” said Niki Forbing-Orr, public information manager of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “The in-patient psychiatric hospital has always been in good standing, but the nursing home had some survey issues.”

Effective Nov. 30, 2017, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) decertified the nursing home portion of the Safe Haven Care Center in Pocatello.

“That didn’t mean the center was going to be shut down,” Forbing-Orr said, “that just means that CMS won’t pay them any federal funds to take care of the residents at that facility.”

One of the primary issues surrounding this decision, Forbing-Orr said, was that the facility didn’t have an adequate number of staff members to provide proper service for residents. And the staff members that were employed didn’t have the proper training for the people they served.

“The level of care at an assisted living facility is not as clinical compared to a skilled nursing facility,” Forbing-Orr said. “Nursing facilities offer around-the-clock, skilled nursing care for people who need a high level of medical care and assistance and those skilled nursing services are provided by licensed nurses 24 hours per day.”

She continued, “An assisted living facility is designed for people who can’t live on their own safely, but don’t require a high level of care that a nursing home would provide. Licensed nurses may not be part of the staff at an assisted living facility.”

Dvorak confirmed on Tuesday that numerous staff members have been laid off in the past six months because of the operational changes at the facility, but said that the facility was never in jeopardy of closing entirely.

“The facility was transitioning and therefore didn’t need that level of staff anymore,” Dvorak said about the layoffs. “And the transition mostly had to do with the switch from a skilled nursing facility to a licensed assisted living facility.”

This article was originally published by the Idaho State Journal. It is used here with permission.

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