Written by Elizabeth Ecker for ALFA Update
Assisted living communities have long struggled with being classified along with other types of institutional-type buildings such as hospitals and nursing homes. Under national building and fire safety codes, this has led to costly and sometimes unnecessary building features to adhere with codes that are not specifically geared toward assisting living resident safety. Until now.
A forthcoming guide and toolkit published through the work of the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) and some vested individuals will explain the new changes to the International Building Code providing—for the first time—a consistent building code for assisted living communities.
While the changes are not expected to be published for several years, some states are adopting the new rules even sooner in order to bring greater alignment between the state building codes, fire safety codes and assisted living regulations.
“As fire safety code goes, people have learned what assisted living is,” says Maribeth Bersani, senior vice president of public policy for ALFA. “Thankfully, people understand we don’t need to be built like a nursing home or hospital. We’re different.”
The initiative has been the work of ALFA with the help of a small group of architects and fire safety experts for the past five years. The work will come to fruition in the 2015 International Building Code (IBC), and sooner in some states like Oregon that may be implementing ahead of the curve.
Individual developers also have the option of proposing to use this new building code for their specific projects within their local jurisdictions before the 2015 publication.
The IBC changes also generally align with the recent editions of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code in its Residential Board & Care (Assisted Living) regulations. NFPA 101 is referenced or enforced by many state assisted living licensing agencies.
“Eventually [the code] will create consistency across the country,” says Dan Purgiel, principal in charge of senior housing with LRS Architects. “Most jurisdictions will not adopt until 2015 to 2018, so it’s still in the future. But some will adopt early.”
Rather than viewing assisted living communities as health care buildings, all new assisted living construction will require conformance to what has essentially become a national building code, the IBC. No matter what capability levels their residents have, the communities will have to comply.
Providers currently have two options: classifying the community under health care standards, or restricting residents to those who meet evacuation requirements. This can cause problems for providers and developers building new communities.
Take, for example, the placement of smoke detectors in nursing homes. Because residents sleep with unit doors open and there are higher levels of staffing to assist in the event of evacuation, having smoke detectors in the hallways, rather than in the rooms could be considered sufficient.
Apply the same standard to an assisted living community, in which residents may have private rooms with closed doors and fewer staff to help evacuate, and there’s a disconnect. Smoke detectors in the halls are less responsive in the case of a fire within a resident’s room.
Yet because of the outdated building code, assisted living providers had to adhere to something, even if it wasn’t the most fitting for the residents’ needs.
The discrepancy also explained why so many assisted living developers were having problems when applying the building code requirements.
“The issue is predicated on the fact that acuity rates in assisted living are going up and evacuation capabilities are going down,” says Tom Jaeger, president of Jaeger and Associates and former fire life safety consultant to the long term care industry. “The requirements for assisted living communities, up to recent times, didn’t anticipate that the ability of the residents to evacuate would be as low as it is today.”
Under the new IBC, providers will have a third option of providing fire safety measures within their communities to meet the new assisted living building code.
Many state regulators, too, have supported the change, which aligns the interests of owners and residents as well as the jurisdictions, which have been tasked with keeping up with regulating in an ever-changing assisted living environment.
“This recognizes who we are, and comes up with a life safety code supportive of who we are to keep buildings and residents and safe,” Bersani says.
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