Regulations are inconsistent when it comes to B&Bsby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — 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 review of bed and breakfasts found Minnesota's regulations to be inconsistent 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 in recent weeks, after 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.
Some travelers love the ambiance of bed and breakfasts, and their unique features: Cozy Victorian mansions, rustic cottages tucked in the woods or castles with a lake view.
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.
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 these 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 visit roughly the same number of bed and breakfasts the association has members. However, those inspections only include basic fire checks.
In some of those cases, they may be looking at just the basic fire safety requirements," Bergstrand said. "Others may have in their regulations a more in-depth type inspection to do."
Cities that have their own fire inspection requirements include Duluth and Hastings, where fire officials inspect bed and breakfasts every three years.
In New Ulm, the site of the deadly fire, officials inspect bed and breakfasts annually as part of the licensing process.
The main house at the Bohemian Bed and Breakfast in New Ulm wasn't licensed for occupancy this year, according to its most recent inspection in December. As a result, it did not have an inspection. A smaller carriage house was inspected and a problem noted with the fire extinguisher was resolved.
Investigators ruled the fire was accidental and started from untended candles.
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.
In Winona, bed and breakfast operators must only obtain an annual county environmental health inspection. Since the New Ulm fire, Winona fire officials have started conducting inspections with the county's environmental health services department, Winona Fire Marshal Jim Multhaup said. The first was last week.
Multhaup said fire department officials want to join the inspection to share insight into what they'd look for during a regular fire inspection.
"We're not looking to duplicate services," he said. "It's going to be one inspection, eventually, the way the county has always done it. But hopefully with a little more insight on looking for potential fire hazards."
Despite the state's patchwork of laws, some operators say the regulations are adequate.
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.
"This was a very tragic event and it saddens a great deal of people that this happened," McKeeth said. "We trust that our officials know exactly what they're doing and we trust the decisions that they make." 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 find out that state officials do not inspect smaller bed and breakfasts. Mensing said Minnesota needs better fire regulation for all bed and breakfasts, regardless of size.
"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."
Around her six-bedroom house, Mensing points out safety measures she's voluntarily taken through the years. 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.
Mensing displays her state Health Department license on the refrigerator but keeps the fire inspection documents on her computer. No one ever asks about them.
"I think I've really had 10 people, seriously, in the last 26 years ask about fire exits and things like that and that's really it," she said. "It's not the concern that's generally on most people's minds. As an owner, that's my concern. I need to make sure, and that's why I go through everything to make sure that if anything does happen, they can get out safe. I'm not any different; I want to get out, too."
Bed and breakfast customers also have become more interested in safety.
On a recent trip to Lanesboro to celebrate their anniversary, Stephanie and Steve Ciccone of Coons Rapids, said they never worried about safety at bed and breakfasts. But the recent fire in New Ulm changed that.
I don't think that would hinder me from going to one that has less than six bedrooms," Stephanie Ciccone said. "Maybe I would have some questions like if they do burn candles, if there is a way to have somebody be looking after them."
Her husband said a uniform state standard makes sense.
"I think whether you're holding 30 families or three families, you're still housing other families," Steve Ciccone said. "You should have the same restrictions everybody else does."
Bergstrand, the state fire marshal supervisor, said the department considers requests for additional inspections every couple years. But expanding the state's fire inspection program to facilities that have fewer than six rooms would be expensive, he said.
Others say more uniform fire regulations simply won't work in smaller communities that rely on voluntary fire departments.
"It's really a decision that probably should remain at the local level about whether the resources are available and whether there's a demand for the inspections," said Anne Finn, assistant intergovernmental relations director for the Minnesota League of Cities. Since the New Ulm fire, Finn hasn't received inquiries from cities about implementing local fire regulations that include smaller bed and breakfasts.
"These businesses are struggling as much as anybody else," she said. "To add another layer of fees on them, there's a lot of pushback out there."
Finn said some cities offer voluntary fire inspections for a fee. In the absence of a broader state fire law, she said, owners of smaller bed and breakfasts should consider hiring private inspectors.
But she said consumers should always ask about safety measures when they visit.