NEW ULM-Following the tragic six fatality fire that occurred this July at the Bohemian Bed and Breakfast, many people became concerned about the safety of bed and breakfast (B&B) businesses. The sentiment became more prevalent following surveys by several news organizations that found that Minnesota's B&B inspection protocol was inconsistent across the state. Most notable was the determination that many Minnesota cities did not perform fire inspections on B&Bs, despite being the only entity responsible for the inspections.
Relatively little information has been presented about how B&B customers can determine whether a B&B they are interested in is safe. To determine this, interviews were conducted with Minnesota B&B owners and fire inspectors to help illuminate the issue.
Risks and Realities
Staff Photo by Josh Moniz
Minnesota Bed and Breakfast Association President and Bingham Hall B&B Owner Shannon McKeeth, who is pictured in front of her B&B, said that Bed and Breakfasts are safer than people consider them to be. She said that most B&B owners live in their building, so they will definitely implement necessary fire safety measures to keep themselves and others safe.
The most common concern expressed by people following the Bohemian fire was whether the historic buildings themselves were dangerous. Some were concerned that the fact that B&Bs are typically historic buildings; which may conceal structural flaws.
The Bohemian's architecture structure was a 19th century Victorian house that was built in the "balloon frame" style, which is also known as "balloon construction." While not all B&Bs were built this way, the style of "balloon construction" is common in homes built from the 1890s to the 1930s because its cheap cost was popular during that era. One of its distinct characteristics is having the house's "studs" run the full length of a building.
It is that design element that is the primary source of danger in "balloon construction" style houses. The long "studs" create a chimney-like space in the walls that can allow fire to climb from floor to floor. This flaw is magnified because the houses were built before the advent of fire stops, which are horizontal wood boards placed in wall or floor spaces to hinder a fire's climb. The danger of "balloon construction" is that a fire can engulf an entire wall quickly.
"The danger with those houses are that a fire in the basement could climb all the way to the top," said former New Ulm Fire Inspector and former New Ulm Fire Chief Jerry Plagge.
However, Plagge and New Ulm Fire Chief Paul Macho, who assisted in the fire investigation of the Bohemian, said that the risk was relatively minor compared with most modern fire hazards.
"Modern homes are much more dangerous," said Plagge, "Thicker, heavier woods were used when they did "balloon construction." It's harder to ignite and takes longer to burn. Modern homes used two by fours made out of processed wood, which falls apart easier. It makes it more likely for a floor to collapse, which is dangerous to people and firefighters alike."
Macho agreed with Plagge. He said that the heavy wood in the Bohemian allowed the New Ulm Fire Department time to makes so many rescue attempts during the fire.
Similarly, another concern is that many historic homes have wood siding. Plagge said wood siding was susceptible to catching fire by the very natures of it being made out of wood. He stated how susceptible wood siding is to starting on fire depends on the type of wood and the ornateness of the siding. He said heavier wood is harder to burn and that less ornate siding is less susceptible to fire because it has fewer surfaces to ignite.
The other major concern about B&Bs was whether current state and city fire inspections were sufficient enough to ensure safety.
Under Minnesota regulation, if the B&B has less than six rental rooms in any of its individual buildings, its inspection is at the discretion of the local city. This is because having less than six rooms categorizes the buildings as a residential facility in Minnesota. If the B&B has more than six rooms in one building, the state fire inspectors will perform the inspection every three years.
Investigations by several major news organizations have revealed that many Minnesota cities do not inspect B&Bs, often out of lack of available personnel. New Ulm stacked up comparatively well with other cities because it requires fire inspections are part of its licensing process.
Other types of fire inspections conducted in Minnesota are very basic inspections done during state health inspections and a one-time inspection when a B&B joins the Minnesota Bed and Breakfast Association (MBBA).
MBBA President Shannon McKeeth said the organization is stringent in examining that a B&B is up to standards when it joins the organization. But, she said they are unable to inspect beyond that because of limited personnel.
People wishing to know whether a B&B has been inspected can call the city that the B&B resides in and ask for details. B&B customers can also call the B&B and ask about the building's fire safety measures.
McKeeth said that despite the variance in Minnesota B&B regulation, most the 114 B&Bs in her organization still install fire safety measures regardless whether they are inspected.
"Most of the B&B owners live in their houses, so they are at the very least concerned about their own safety," said McKeeth, "We just have to go on our history of assuming that state regulation is sufficient. Besides the Bohemian, I can't think of a single other [deadly] B&B in Minnesota's history."
Solutions and Considerations
Plagge and Macho both outlined the four most basic fire prevention measures that B&B can install to improve fire safety: sprinkler systems, fire stops, escape ladders and more smoke detectors. Various people and newspapers have called for stricter regulation on B&Bs, which would require some or all of the safety measures installed. Plagge and McKeeth discussed the relative merit and cost of each of the measures.
With sprinkler systems, Plagge said that sprinklers are an effective firefighting measure. He said that he would support a requirement that B&Bs have them installed, citing how motels are similarly required to have them.
However, he said that he thought they were too expensive to install for many B&Bs to be a practical requirement.
"It's very expensive and difficult to install them in the older homes. It's too much cost for some B&Bs," said Plagge, "They are also difficult to conceal and can make the place look ugly."
McKeeth said that sprinkler systems were the most commonly asked about safety measure following the Bohemian fire.
"A lot of people just seem to assume that we ought to have them. They don't think about how much they cost," said McKeeth.
Plagge said fire stops would be just as expensive to install as sprinkler systems, but not as beneficial to fire prevention.
"A lot of these houses have walls made out of material you can't get anymore. You'd have to tear them out to install the fire stops," said Plagge, "At that point, you just might as well get a sprinkler system instead."
McKeeth said that she is fundamentally opposed to require B&Bs to install sprinkler systems or fire stops. She said the large cost of the installation whole decimate the B&B industry and put many out of business.
"We're small businesses. We're poor. Running a B&B is what allows us the privilege to be able to afford to live these beautiful homes," said McKeeth, "I support anyone who wants to get them. I just don't support being forced to get them."
She said that she also opposes the regulation because she considers B&Bs to be homes that people do business in, as oppose to a business that the owners live in. Because of this, she said that she feels B&Bs should be regulated likes residences as opposed to motels.
"A B&B is safer than most people's houses," said McKeeth.
Plagge said more economically viable options would be to require escape ladders or more fire alarms. He said that chain ladders that can be mounted could be purchased for as cheap as $40. But, he said the single best safety measure in the installation of more fire alarms.
"Early detection is key," said Plagge.
Plagge said fire alarms both helped people get out early enough to be safe and allowed faster response to prevent the fire from getting out of control. McKeeth expressed some concern that the wiring required for additional fire alarms would be expensive. Plagge responded that there were wireless fire alarms available that were as effective as traditional fire alarms.
Overall, he said the single best way to improve fire safety was simply practicing basic fire safety actions, like always monitoring lit candles and dealing with exposed wiring.
"Just being safe about the small things really helps," said Plagge.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org )