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Lawmaker: VA should make sure homeless shelters are fire safe

Jul. 9, 2013 - 02:15PM   |  
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A West Virginia lawmaker is pushing Congress to require homeless shelters accepting money from the Veterans Affairs Department to certify that they meet fire and safety standards.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said his effort comes after discovering during visits to shelters in his district that “many seemed to not be in compliance with state, local or federal safety standards.”

“When I walked into some of these shelters, I was appalled. There is no current law mandating VA homeless shelters meet code,” McKinley, a licensed professional engineer, said Tuesday as the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s health panel considered his bill, HR 2065.

VA does not support his bill. “We are concerned it would fundamentally shift VA’s role” in inspecting and overseeing nonprofit organizations that receive or seek to receive grants, said Robert Jesse, VA’s principal deputy undersecretary for health.

Shelters are inspected now by representatives of the local VA medical center, Jesse said. The inspection includes checking that the shelter meets fire and safety codes.

McKinley said the inspections are not working. He saw doors that did not meet fire code, unlit fire exits, inadequate sprinkler systems and inadequate firewalls between residential and counseling spaces. “They are cutting corners,” he said.

Similar legislation passed the House of Representatives last year but was not passed by the Senate, in part because of concerns expressed by nonprofit organizations about the cost and difficulty of meeting codes.

Robert Drexler, fire marshal for Greece, N.Y., and a member of the board of directors of the International Code Council, has been working with McKinley on modifying the legislation to address concerns.

“This bill does not impose any onerous administrative burden on the Department of Veterans Affairs, other than to assure that each facility receiving reimbursement has filed a certification, either from the local code official or from a competent third party, that code requirements are met,” Drexler said.

In some locations, a nonprofit organization might have to pay for a certificate of compliance, but McKinley said the annual fee is about $100. “I’m sure we can find a way to take care of that,” he said.

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