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Tap in ‘fire safety and healthcare’ into any search engine and you immediately sense the importance of this subject. The list of websites persuading you to purchase training and reference material is vast. Training courses, books, tuition CD’s, whatever your preferred media, a solution is out there. This is not surprising when one considers the challenges of fire safety in a healthcare environment and the consequences of getting it wrong.
Stripped back to basics, a fire cannot start without a source of ignition, fuel and oxygen. If we think of hospitals alone, these three elements are present in abundance. Then there are the less obvious factors that can increase the risk in hospitals. These can include patient groups such as the elderly, those suffering from mental instabilities; or simply those with a desire for arson. Sadly, statistics suggest arson is the basis of a quarter of all fires within healthcare premises.
Consequences of fire
The consequences of inadequate fire prevention and detection in this sector do not bear thinking about; loss of buildings (many historic), loss of expensive life saving equipment and, of course, the loss of life. Achieving optimum fire safety is a matter for each health authority to consider and is a delicate balance between cost, safety and ensuring the continued core functionality.
Each hospital has the potential to adopt every type of fire prevention and detection (and evacuation) solution available in the market; and to install them in large quantities. Unfortunately budgets in the current economic climate, particularly in the public sector, necessitate careful and extensive deliberation.
Writing for an audience such as the readership of this magazine means I don’t have to preach the importance of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety Order) 2005 in England and Wales or the Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006. It is probably a sad reflection of our society that something as important as fire safety needs to be wrapped up in legislation rather than common sense. Thankfully, healthcare, has always realised the importance of fire safety and afforded the subject a priority often not equalled across business or industrial sectors. The healthcare sector, however, is fortunate in that it has comprehensive guidance via the Health Technical Memorandum (HTM); guidance not as readily available within other sectors. Fire safety is often a consideration and responsibility of senior executives who give due priority and attention to fire risks. If other sectors can learn just one thing from healthcare, this latter point should certainly be up there.
Investing in safety
Healthcare makes significant investment both in the training of highly skilled medical personnel and in life-saving equipment. We are all aware of the expense of this sophisticated equipment and the impact it makes on healthcare budgets. Awareness of this is amplified through direct or sponsorship donations we have all made for new scanners and the like. This expensive equipment makes a great difference to our healthcare, and is one of the reasons that the NHS carries such a wide respect throughout the UK and internationally. Investing in expensive, innovative and life saving equipment commands an additional investment in appropriate fire safety measures to avoid that investment, quite literally, going up in smoke.
Man and machines have been a productive partnership throughout history. In addition to the challenges of protecting machinery, the challenges of protecting personnel are arguably even greater. In relation to fire safety, people have the ability to cause and prevent fires. The ‘people’ challenge therefore is considerable. For a start, the number and variety of people within a hospital environment is acute – doctors, nurses, surgeons, researchers, security teams, chefs, volunteers, contractors, administration, visitors; the list goes on. The way a given individual will react in any combination of real fire scenarios is a great unknown variable factor. There will be the inevitable ‘have a go hero’; there may also be those whose panic will cause additional hazards or those who react in a violent nature against hospital workers, patients or visitors, thus hindering the safe evacuation of others.
Then there are the patients. It is not only the number of patients but the variety of patients. They will range from those who are independent and mobile, those who are dependent on assisted support such as children and mental health patients, and those with a very high dependency for example in intensive care units or in the operating theatre where evacuation could prove life-threatening.
Fire risk assessment, for each of these classifications, requires careful consideration in any risk assessment both in terms of their safety, and of course, their subsequent safe evacuation. Due to these tremendous variables, fire prevention and detection solutions (and evacuation) will vary from trust to trust, hospital to hospital, department to department, and possibly even ward to ward.
It is perfectly feasible that at any given moment, the number of personnel not familiar with the hospital layout, location of the fire exits, fire alarms and/or fire extinguishing equipment, will exceed those who do possess that knowledge. This means the uniquities and complexities of fire safety in a healthcare environment extend beyond fire prevention and detection, and continue into clear and appropriate signage and emergency lighting.
Although hospitals are complex in terms of delivering effective fire safety, modern hospitals are possibly some of the ‘easier’ environments for our fire and rescue services. Modern hospitals are designed with fire safety in mind; from access to the hospital itself for fire engines and fire crews, through to isolation areas and venting to reduce the risks and to filter harmful smoke and gases. The proportion of false alarms originating from hospitals is deemed high yet there is some reassurance that the efficiency of the fire crews ‘to the door’ response is testament to considered design and planning.
Products & solutions
Fire prevention and detection solutions are in abundance and cover a vast spectrum. Many UK fire solution companies offer innovative and internationally renowned solutions. Anyone who has attended an international fire show will have witnessed first-hand the interest shown in UK exhibitors and their wares from a plethora of overseas buyers. The UK fire prevention and detection sector is one that is often taken for granted yet, in reality, is one in which we should be justifiably proud. Many product types have their own bespoke standards and it is worthy of a reminder that standards lay down a ‘minimum’ standard of compliance with numerous products designed and manufactured beyond this ‘minimum’.
However, if the equipment is not properly installed, it doesn’t matter how robust the equipment is. If even the best products and solutions are installed incorrectly they may as well not be present at all. Again the fire sector is blessed with comprehensive design, installation, commissioning and maintenance standards. BAFE approval is one reassuring benchmark to establish that the installing company has undergone a thorough inspection from one of four independent third party certification bodies (inspectorates) such as National Security Inspectorate. Fire product installation companies offering BAFE approval have opened themselves up to independent inspection to verify that they work in line with relevant industry standards. Approval, such as with NSI, demonstrates that the installing company complies with industry specific British and European standards that have been drawn up with the input of the fire industry itself, insurers and the fire and rescue services.
We have already stated that hospitals lend themselves to the whole spectrum of fire prevention and detection solutions, yet some of the most staple fire prevention techniques are the basic and everyday actions undertaken by each and every one of us who enter these locations. Complacency, inertia or carelessness can often be the biggest dangers i.e. careless disposal of rubbish, failure to notify staff of a potential hazard, or foolish storage of flammable material, could cause a fire check to become a reality check.
Healthcare environments therefore are unquestionably unique environments. Although many industrial and commercial environments can claim to have unique fire risks and safety challenges, very few environments call so many scenarios and hazards into such a concentrated area with the potential to affect so many people. Thankfully fires in hospitals are not commonplace but we should all remember, they do happen.
For more information:
To find a fire detection and alarm company approved by NSI log on to www.nsi-fire.org.uk or call 01628 637512.