Overcoming Fire Safety Challenges in Healthcare

Author: Matthew Bradford

Fire safety is a fundamental consideration in any environment. This is particularly true in healthcare, where numerous factors make protecting occupants from the risks of fire a complex challenge.

“Hospitals are an extremely complicated building type when it comes to fire safety,” says Eric Esselink, Chief Executive Officer with LRI Engineering Inc. “Not only do you have to consider a wide range of specialized medical departments, equipment, and materials, butyou have to make your plan accommodate a wide range of occupants with varying needs and limitations.”

Certainly, when it comes to protecting there can be a lot for teams like LRI Engineering Inc. to consider. Examples include:

Staff training: Hospital staff are already stretched thin caring for residents across various wards and departments. In the event of a fire, they must be able to pivot quickly and help patients with varying physical and mental needs evacuate quickly and safely. It can be a challenge to find both the time and resources to train hospital staff and ensure fire safety drills and tests are being conducted regularly to keep them at the ready. Here’s where effective training programs, easy-to-follow emergency plans, and ongoing support can help staff act quickly and decisively in the event of a fire.

Stairs are not usually an option: There are many reasons why some patients and residents can’t use stairs to evacuate during a fire (e.g., disabilities, cognitive difficulties, etc.). As such, hospital designs need to accommodate horizontal evacuation strategies which, in turn, rely on architectural features such as fire separation walls and fire safety mechanical systems that must all be maintained in accordance with the fire code.

Tech is always evolving: Many healthcare facilities are decades old and designed according to building codes that have long since evolved. As such, they may have layouts and infrastructure that do not take the latest equipment and technology into consideration. So, while technologies such as automated delivery vehicles, mobile terminals, pneumatic waste and linen systems, or other portable devices may be of great benefit in modern hospitals, their use may also pose fire risks that have not been properly accounted for in existing facilities. To that end, fire safety plans and strategies need to be revised to incorporate new elements into older environments.

Hazardous materials and advanced treatments: Advances in healthcare have introduced new equipment, treatments, goods, and potentially hazardous materials into the environment. Here again, recognizing the risks that these new elements pose and working with fire safety specialists to address them is critical to ongoing fire safety.

Competing priorities: Building codes can conflict when it comes to accessibility, fire safety, and specialized environments. This is where experience designing fire safety programs across a broad range of facilities can be a huge advantage, as can a deep knowledge of industry best practices.

User (un)Friendly systems: The most cutting-edge fire safety equipment and systems will not work as intended unless hospital staff members know how to use them. As such, it is important to implement user-friendly technologies, systems, and program interfaces that are easy to monitor and employ quickly in times of crisis.

Collaborating on fire safety

Ideally, fire safety should be an integral part of a healthcare facility’s design and construction. Projects that include fire safety specialists from day one are better equipped to manage fire risks and in this increasingly challenging space. Further, it is critical that the actual user groups be engaged in the design process in its early stages.

“The best time to consult with fire safety specialists is during the design phase, because we know what to look for, we know the potential pitfalls, and we can address potential risks before they become an issue,” Esselink agrees.

Even still, much can be done after a healthcare facility is built to bring it more in line with the fire safety codes and best practices. Fire safety teams like LRI Engineering Inc. are ready and eager to work with hospital teams to roll out the training, redesigns, and updating required to bring them up to speed.

“We have the benefit of working in many different commercial, residential and, industrial environments that have similar core challenges to hospitals,” notes Esselink. “So, while firre safety can be a complicated topic in hospitals, we have the experience and insights to help healthcare teams create a safer place for care.”

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