Understanding Fire Safety for Healthcare Facilities
In any commercial facility, fire safety must be a top priority. Fire safety for healthcare facilities, however, take on even greater urgency. Here’s a brief overview of fire safety for healthcare facilities and what designers and operators must do to keep patients safe during fire emergencies.
Caring for Patients
The patient population in a hospital, long-term care facility or other medical building is, in general, highly vulnerable. In many cases, patients will be unable to respond to a fire alarm on their own and must rely on the staff to ensure their safety in case of a fire or related emergency. It’s also true that evacuating dozens or hundreds of patients, many of whom will likely be in fragile health, isn’t a practical solution.
Hospitals and healthcare facilities must therefore be concerned with prevention and reacting to a fire in place without the need to move patients. Healthcare facilities operate on the concept of “defend-in-place” when it comes to fire safety. This allows staff and patients to be protected where they are without the need for total evacuation.
A defend-in-place process uses active alarms and suppression systems, such as sprinklers, along with the passive containment and separation of fires. The idea of defend-in-place is so important in this context that it’s a critical element of accreditation for healthcare facilities.
Fire Safety Codes
The greater portion of the regulations and requirements for healthcare facilities is derived from NFPA 101 Life Safety Code from the National Fire Protection Association. It’s supplemented by local and state fire codes and building regulations, along with other NFPA reference codes, such as NVPA 13 (sprinkler systems), NFPA 72 (fire alarm systems) and NFPA 90A (HVAC equipment).
These rules, requirements and regulations create an environment in which fire safety for healthcare facilities is accorded the priority it deserves. NFPA 101 also provides requirements for factors such as compartmentation, staff training and exiting strategies.
Alarms and Sprinklers
Regulations require substantial attention be paid to alarm and sprinkler systems in a healthcare facility. NFPA 101 provides the basic guidance necessary for fire alarms, smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. In addition to regular fire alarms, detection systems are a critical component of fire safety.
For example, smoke detectors include duct detectors and detectors that are connected to systems that automatically close smoke doors, elevator lobby detectors and machine room detectors.
Nursing homes and hospitals require corridor smoke detectors with some exceptions. In hospitals, full-coverage smoke detectors are usually required. Sprinkler systems are designed to activate and extinguish fires when they occur. NFPA 101 provides the requirements for the design and function of sprinkler systems in healthcare facilities.
Maintenance and Testing
A critical component of fire safety in a healthcare facility is the maintenance and testing of fire alarms, smoke detectors, sprinkler systems and other detection, safety and suppression equipment. Without regular maintenance and testing, fire safety systems will degrade and won’t be reliable.
It’s no exaggeration to say that a poorly maintained and tested fire safety system in a healthcare facility could lead to severe injuries or even deaths.
Local fire protection authorities will apply the regulatory requirements for testing and maintenance in healthcare facilities. They will not only assist with testing, maintenance and inspection of fire safety systems, but will also hold healthcare facilities responsible for issues such as analyzing test results, formulating plans to correct any issues discovered, and proceeding with actual corrections, repairs and changes to systems.
Make sure all inspections, tests and maintenance procedures are clearly and carefully documented and that records are maintained as required by regulations.
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