Fire safety rules for bed and breakfasts vary
When Minnesotans and visitors stay at one of the state’s bed and breakfasts, they may be staying at a facility that a state or local fire official has inspected. But chances are just as good that they are not.
A Minnesota Public Radio News review of bed and breakfasts found Minnesota has inconsistent regulations on how such small businesses are inspected for fire safety, rules that vary from city to city.
How state and local officials scrutinize bed and breakfasts has come under scrutiny since a July fire at a New Ulm bed and breakfast killed six people. Some say such inspections have become increasingly important given the growing popularity of bed and breakfasts, across the United States and in Minnesota.
In Minnesota, the state's Bed and Breakfast Association counts 114 members, according its 2010 guide. But not all of these charming homes are inspected the same way.
Inspection rules vary
By law, state officials must inspect bed and breakfasts with six rooms or more every three years. If a bed and breakfast has fewer than six rooms, Minnesota law considers it a residential facility and leaves it up to individual cities to implement fire inspection rules.
"That number is just an arbitrary number that international fire codes have designated," State Fire Marshal Glen Bergstrand said.
According to state records, the Minnesota fire marshal's office inspects 11 of the bed and breakfasts in the association’s 2010 guide, including three in Stillwater and one each in Hastings, Preston, Spicer, Pipestone, Lanesboro, Mentor, Afton and Annandale.
The six inspectors who visit bed and breakfasts are also responsible for reviewing hundreds of other small living facilities that provide accommodations for 16 or fewer people, among them child care centers and foster homes, Bergstrand said.
In some cities, local fire officials conduct inspections.
However, every bed and breakfast in the state, regardless of size, must have a state health inspection. State records indicate health department officials do visit as many bed and breakfasts as the association has members.
In New Ulm, the site of the deadly fire, officials inspect bed and breakfasts annually as part of the licensing process.Investigators ruled the fire was accidental and started from untended candles.
Bed and Breakfast Capital
In Lanesboro, the state-designated bed and breakfast capital of Minnesota, there are 26 lodging facilities. Some have permits to operate as bed and breakfasts, but others are considered inns and general lodging. The city makes this distinction depending on zoning regulations.
According to state records, six of Lanesboro’s facilities are inspected by the state fire marshal's office, including the Historic Scanlan House, a 19th century Victorian mansion.
Scanlon House owner Kirsten Mensing was surprised to learn that state officials do not inspect smaller bed and breakfasts. She said Minnesota needs better fire regulation.
"I wouldn't expect a fire inspector to give me health codes — you know, go through my kitchen and judge my refrigerator," Mensing said. "So I wouldn't expect a health inspector to go through my electrical and think he's going to know all about the electrical."
Mensing has voluntarily taken additional precautions in her six-bedroom house. She started using fire-resistant beds and linens after a guest burned through a comforter with a cigarette. She has fire extinguishers in each room and only uses tea light or jar candles around the house.
MPR News also contacted officials in other popular destinations, including Stillwater, Grand Marais and Lanesboro. Officials in those cities do not require bed and breakfasts to have fire inspections, even though with 21 facilities between them they account for nearly 20 percent of the state's bed and breakfasts.
Officials in those cities say in part their lack of required inspections stems from insufficient personnel and whether they have a full-time fire department.
The Minnesota Bed and Breakfast Association offers its members a $300 inspection that includes a visit from a consultant who offers bed and breakfast owners advice on safety, cleanliness and maintenance, according to its website.
But no inspection or state regulation would have changed the outcome of the New Ulm fire in New Ulm that killed six, said Shannon McKeeth, the association’s president.