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Inspection shuts down ‘unsafe conditions’ in kitchens of embattled Zambarano hospital

Target 12

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. State Fire Marshal has reported “unsafe conditions and practices” requiring immediate repair inside kitchens at the state-run Zambarano hospital facility, forcing workers there to cook some meals outdoors on grills.

Target 12 has confirmed the state fire marshal’s office sent a letter to multiple state agencies last Friday amid ongoing inspections of the Burrillville-based facility, a unit of the Eleanor Slater Hospital system. The inspection concluded certain cooking operations must stop until they are fixed and re-inspected.

“This letter serves to notify you that the cooking operations at Zambarano Hospital have unsafe conditions and practices that need to be immediately abated,” Fire Marshal chief deputy James Gumbley wrote in the letter.

Gumbley tied the dangerous conditions and practices to the kitchen’s cooking exhaust system, adding, “cooking operations that produce grease laden vapor are not to be conducted until such a time as remedies are completed which are satisfactory of the Office of the State Fire Marshal.”

State officials have since struggled to explain the fallout from the inspection. State spokesperson Randy Edgar told Target 12 Friday the unsafe conditions wouldn’t prevent staff from cooking indoors.

After repeated follow-up questions about the situation, however, the explanation changed on Wednesday.

“The kitchen staff are also occasionally using outside grills,” state spokesperson Robert Dulski wrote in an email to Target 12, adding that they are normally used during summer cookouts for patients.

The inspection letter was addressed to Kathryn Power, director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, along with Carole Cornelison, director of the R.I. Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance (DCAMM). The two state agencies oversee operations and maintenance at Zambarano.

Edgar of BHDDH had declined to provide the letter to Target 12 last week, referring a request for documents to the state fire marshal’s office. DCAMM spokesperson Dulski on Tuesday responded by saying, “we won’t have our hands on an actual copy of it for another week or two.”

A copy of the letter was eventually provided through the state fire marshal’s office.

“Interior portions of the exhaust system between the basement and the fourth-floor attic have not been properly cleaned,” Gumbley wrote. “Proper cleaning of these inaccessible areas will lessen the build-up of combustible grease.”

Eleanor Slater, with Zambarano in Burrillville and three more units in Cranston, has become the focus of intense scrutiny over the past month, as doctors and employees have criticized an ongoing overhaul effort. The hospital has cost the state more than $100 million in general revenue since 2019, when it fell out of federal compliance and stopped billing for Medicaid reimbursements.

Gov. Dan McKee earlier this month proposed replacing Zambarano with a new, $65 million long-term care facility as part of a broader plan that would also result in the closing of two units in Cranston, along with the elimination of at least 100 full-time positions.

The Fire Marshal inspections of the Zambarano unit are the latest signs of problems with the antiquated facility, which first opened its doors as the Rhode Island State Sanatorium in 1905.

It’s unclear how long the kitchen will be out of order, although Dulski said officials hope to have it back in operation in about a week. The exhaust system has “been sent out for repair,” he added, and a vendor is determining the fire rating around the duct work.

Dulski said the inspection was done at the request of BHDDH.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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