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Protecting hospitals and patients in the event of fire

11 April 2018

Fire safety in hospitals was the subject of a three-handed lunchtime presentation in the Fire & Evacuation Theatre at the Fire Safety Event today (11 April).

First to speak was Robin Kemp, of Advanced’s Lux Intelligent division, which has been involved in many projects in the health-care field. Two key accounts are the Leeds Healthcare Trust and Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation, which, between them, have more than 8000 emergency lights to be maintained and tested.

Robin explained: “There are now four types of emergency lighting: escape-route lighting (minimum 1 lux), open-area lighting (not less than 0.5 lux), high-risk task lighting (not less than 10 per cent of average normal lighting) and emergency safety lighting, to provide added protection for occupants who need to stay behind. This has become known as ‘stay-put lighting’.”

Traditionally, hospitals tend to use horizontal evacuation, i.e. moving people from high-risk to low-risk areas. “For this, you need escape-route lighting,” Robin explained. “Here, we are stepping away from converted mains lighting towards non-maintained systems, and more LED technology is being introduced. Maintenance is easier and the product life cycle is longer, because they only come on when they are tested.”

Wit regard to high-risk task and stay-put lighting, he went on, “it is sometimes essential to bridge the gap between the mains failing and the hospital generator kicking in, as the latter can take up to 12 seconds to kick in, whereas our lighting systems are immediate. That can be crucial in hospital operating theatres or maternity delivery rooms, for example.”

In addition, he said, maintenance is proactive “through live data and Cloud technology, so it’s more like a monitoring system. Rather than waiting for the results of tests you can start any remdial works sooner”.

Peter Aldridge, general secretary of the National Association of Healthcare Fire Officers, then took to the stage to discuss health-care evacuation. He began: “Hospitals are special because of the complexities presented by patients, such as bariatric patients and those who need a lot of equipment around them. How do you move them safely in an evacuation? Debate has gone on for years about fire drills. By holding them, chances are the level of care for patients will deteriorate, so nobody wants to do them, but then how do you know if your evacuation plan will work?”

Peter went on to outline the use of table-top exercises as a viable and practical alternative to drills. These involve giving the participants scenarios and letting events unfold, so that they can learn lessons as a result. According to Peter, “with scenarios, you can build on things better than you could in a straightforward face-to-face training session. Staff gain a better realisation of the issues that can unfold, such as the importance of not wedging fire doors open.”

He emphasised that such training should be coupled with Fire & Rescue Service training and engagement with the FRS so it understands the practical issues involved in hospitals. 

Last to speak was FirePro UK’s Tony Hanley, who discussed the FirePro suppression system and its suitability for use in hospitals. Acknowledging that suppression is the last port of call after prevention and intervention, he said the beauty of the FirePro system is that it is completely modular. “There are no cylinders or pipework,” he explained. “It is a condensed-aerosol system. The substance sits as a solid before it is electrically charged, whereupon it changes into a fine particulate and extinguishes the fire by causing a change in the molecular structure of the fire itself.”

Tony said the FirePro system is used in the NHS to protect the likes of diesel-generator and electrical-switch rooms, where it is linked to conventional smoke and heat detectors. “The magic lies in its modularity, which allows us to install it inside specific machines, like sterilisation machines,” he concluded.