Wrightstyle is a specialist steel and aluminium glazing company and supplies its fire-rated systems internationally. Jane Embury, the company’s marketing director, looks at fire safety in healthcare facilities. In the USA, Wrightstyle supplies through Hope’s Windows, Inc. (Jamestown NY), a leading manufacturer of steel and bronze glazing systems.
They’re places of safety for the newborn or elderly, and everyone in between. It’s why fire safety in healthcare facilities is so stringent and rigorously enforced.
Safety regulations require fire risk assessments, fire safety policies and an operational strategy for implementing them – including rehearsed plans for the safe evacuation of patients, staff and visitors.
That initial assessment starts with a close examination of the possible risks against the hospital’s occupants, structure, resources and continuity of operations, and there are a number of assessment methodologies to understand the potential threats, identify the assets to be protected, and how best to mitigate against risk.
It’s led to design teams taking a multi-disciplinary approach to assessing hazards – from power failure to cyber attack, from civil disorder to fire and explosive detonation – and arriving at risk assessments that, hopefully, illuminate how that that building should be designed, built and safely operated.
But the size and complexity of modern hospitals means that the risk of fire cannot be entirely avoided. What’s important is that it is detected quickly, contained and then dealt with.
The history of fire safety in hospitals and elsewhere, in the USA and internationally, has been about “codifying by catastrophe” – only improving regulation once a fatal fire has taken place.
The most significant fire, in terms of new regulation, was the St Anthony’s Hospital disaster in Effingham, Illinois in 1949, which killed over 70 people, including 11 newborn babies.
From that disaster came regulations on flame-retardant materials and effective barriers to contain fires at source, and a new recognition that containment was an integral part in minimizing fire risk.
Fire regulations were again tightened following a 1961 hospital fire in Hartford, Connecticut in which 16 people died. Caused by a discarded cigarette being dropped down a trash chute, among other changes to regulation were new rules on smoking on healthcare premises, and further requirements on fire-retardant materials, including wallpaper and ceiling tiles.
Underlining the importance of containment, an intern at the hospital said that those who lived had the doors to their rooms closed. Those who died had their doors open.
However, the deadliest hospital fire in the US took place at the Cleveland Clinic in May 1929 when over 120 people died, caused by nitrocellulose x-ray film being exposed to the heat of a light bulb. This caused explosions and the creation of poisonous gas.
Following this, again codifying by catastrophe, Cleveland issued all fire fighters with gas masks and, nationally, new standards were introduced for the storage of hazardous materials, including x-ray film.
Among other tragedies was a 1950 fire at Mercy Hospital, Iowa, a unit for mental patients. The fire, again perhaps caused by a discarded cigarette, claimed some 40 lives, and was able to spread rapidly in an old building. Containment, again.
However, although many lessons have been learned over the years, not all of them have been implemented in other parts of the world. In a hospital fire in Russia last year, nearly 40 people died – in a wooden building that had been previously ordered to close because of fire safety concerns. A further 38 died last year in a separate hospital fire near Moscow.
More tragically a 2011 fire in a hospital in Calcutta, India killed nearly 100 patients and staff. The largest loss of life from an accidental hospital fire was in Guatemala in 1960. 235 people died.
Most fires start with the smallest of incidents – commonly, a dropped cigarette or electrical short-circuit. Others have a more bizarre cause; for example, an operating theatre at Ashford Hospital, England, had to be temporarily closed last year because a member of staff overcooked food in a microwave oven, filling corridors with smoke.
But if fire does break out, it needs to be suppressed – most commonly with a sprinkler system – and contained, which is where specialist glazing systems have an important role to play – containing the fire for up to 120 minutes: long enough for safe evacuation and for an emergency response.
At Wrightstyle, we have long international experience in designing steel and aluminium systems to mitigate against fire and other security risks, in all kinds of commercial and public buildings. For example, for a healthcare project in Hong Kong, in a typhoon area, the design specifically required high wind-loading resistance – which our advanced systems provide.
In a hospital environment, where ambient light has an important influence on staff morale and patient recovery, glazing systems can have both a functional and aesthetic purpose: helping in the recovery process and, if fire breaks out, ensuring that it is contained at source.