Hot New Options for Hospital Fire Safety

This is the time to evaluate existing fire protection and suppression systems.

ACCORDING to the National Fire Protection Association, an average of five fires break out per day at our nation's health care facilities1 and more than 8,000 hospital fires occur each year. If not acted upon quickly and effectively, the results can be catastrophic.

With recent alerts and new recommendations for patient and environmental safety, health care facilities are taking a hard look at their current fire protection products and protocols. Whether a facility is phasing out fire blankets or concerned about the phase-out of Halon 1211, there are several new fire protection options that are proving to be extremely safe for patients, sophisticated medical equipment, and the environment.

Alternatives for Halon 1211 portable extinguishers include HFC-236fa, HCFC blend B, recycled Halon 1211, CO2, dry chemical, and water. Each of these alternatives has distinct advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the unique challenges presented by health care environments (see "Halon Alternatives," below).

Switching to 'Clean Agent' Extinguishers
Fire in a hospital setting can threaten the very lives of the patients it is charged with protecting. There is the danger of the life-threatening fire itself and also the potential loss of the patient's critical electronic medical devices, such as life support monitoring equipment.

Hospital engineers know there is a lot more at stake than millions of dollars of technology. "Our primary concern is always for our patients," said Ron Long, director of facilities services for Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz. "These patients are in our hospital because they are relying on us to take care of them . . . and that doesn't mean from just a clinical standpoint. We have to provide them an environment where they are truly safe."

The medical center is now using "clean agent" portable fire extinguishers for protection against the hazards of fire in patient care areas. The Halon 1211 replacement fire extinguishers are in Banner's electrical room, as well as in every procedure room throughout the facility's more than 1 million square feet of space. The extinguishing agent (HFC-236fa) is discharged as a stream of gas and liquid droplets that penetrate into the fire area, stopping the combustion process through heat absorption and a chemical interaction.

"This is the new trend in fire safety for health care facilities," Long said. "In choosing a fire suppression system for our hospital applications, we looked at what would be safest for our patients--whether that be in our operating rooms, delivery rooms, cath labs, or MRI rooms. We thoroughly researched our options and highly recommended this product switch to all of our 25 hospitals and long-term care facilities."

The medical center decided to research these options after warnings and new recommendations came out about the use of fire blankets in oxygen-rich environments such as health care facilities. "Our research shows that fire blankets are not completely successful in smothering an oxygen fire. Clearly you don't want to use an ABC extinguisher with a patient that has an open incision, and sterile water concerns me because of all the electrical equipment that may be attached to a patient. Therefore, the Halon replacement clean agent fire extinguishers are truly the best way to handle fires in a hospital setting," he said.

Last year, the medical center was faced with a potential disaster when fire broke out in its electrical room. The electrical room supplies all of the cooling for the entire medical campus. The fire occurred in Phoenix in July, at a time when the loss of cooling to the hospital would have been catastrophic.

"It happened over a weekend," Long explained. "The main electrical gear had a short in it, which caused a fire. The fire department ended up using our clean agent fire extinguisher that was within the room to extinguish the fire. I'm grateful they didn't put water on it. We had to replace some of the gear, but it only ended up being $160,000 in damage. It could have been substantially more."

Preventing Fatal Attractions
The issue of how to safely handle oxygen canisters, life-saving medical equipment, and fire extinguishers in MRI areas is a hot topic among medical professionals.

Given the explosion of growth in new imaging equipment--and particularly mobile magnetic resonance imaging--there is a heightened need among health care facilities to protect their patients and their investment. The use of strong magnetic fields in confined spaces can pose a challenge in protecting patients and expensive electrical equipment in the event a fire breaks out.

The Banner Medical Center takes special precautions in its MRI areas because of the magnetic field. "We use the same clean agent, but it is contained in an extinguisher that does not contain metal," said Long. "The danger is that the canisters can be immediately pulled out of a person's hands. It will act like a projectile, and the result could very well be fatal." (Awareness about safety in MRI areas increased because of the death of a 6-year-old boy at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., who was killed when a metal oxygen tank was brought into an MRI area. The strong magnetic force of the MRI unit propelled the canister toward the magnet, striking the boy in the head.)

The growth in the MRI market, coupled with the importance of assuring zero interaction between fire extinguishers and powerful imaging equipment, has prompted industry experts to introduce new options with regard to MRI fire suppression.

"Fire extinguishers in and near MRI units must be examined for both the content of the agent inside the extinguisher as well as the canister itself," said Frank Kordish, a development engineer with Tyco Fire & Security. "Newer MRI equipment, such as a 3-Tesla system, requires even more stringent testing than its predecessors to rule out the presence of magnetic field interaction with fire suppression systems."

The type of clean agent extinguisher used by Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center has been deemed safe in 3-Tesla environment. The number of installed mobile MRI units has experienced double-digit growth during the past five years.2 Both mobile and fixed MRI units require special fire protection considerations in regard to:

  • Magnetic fields. The significant magnetic force can pull objects across the room toward the machine and patient. Fire protection professionals need to be careful about bringing magnetic objects into the room, including certain portable fire extinguishers and gear.
  • Electrical components. Health care facilities must select fire suppression systems carefully to minimize damage to sensitive equipment.

Preparing for the Future
Recent industry developments such as the planned phase-out of Halon 1211, as well as the availability of new technologies, make this the time for health care facilities to evaluate existing fire protection and suppression systems. Once a decision has been made to adopt a new system, consistent training of all employees is a key factor in the success of such facilities' fire prevention.

"At Banner, we have a staff person whose sole job is fire marshal. Our department is very proactive. We are hands-on and train every department in our facility. Our goal is to make sure everyone is trained and everyone is safe," Long said.

Clean agent, non-magnetic fire suppression options will help ensure a safe future for health care facilities and patients. Because no two facilities are the same, it is important take the time to investigate the many new technologies that are available today. Finding the right fire protection system for your hospital could mean the difference between life and death.

References
1. "Special Data Information Package: Facilities that care for the sick," NFPA-Fire Analysis and Research, Quincy, MA, February 2002.

2. "North American Mobile Imaging Equipment Markets", Frost & Sullivan, London November 2002.


Halon Alternatives

Halon Alternative

Advantages

Disadvantages

HFC-236fa

  • Broadest compatibility with plastics and elastomers
  • Lower toxicity than HCFC blend B or recycled Halon 1211
  • Non-conductive
  • Rated for ABC fires
  • Not targeted for phase-out in United States
  • Listed by UL and ULC
  • FAA and USCG approvals
  • Lower minimum room volume requirements (146 ft3) than HCFC blend B or recycled Halon 1211
  • Moderate global warming potential
  • More expensive than HCFC blend B or recycled Halon 1211

HCFC blend B

  • Non-conductive
  • Rated for ABC fires
  • Wheeled units and ramp approval for FAA
  • Listed by UL and ULC
  • USCG approvals
  • Primary ingredient (HCFC) production phase-out (not until 2015 in the United States)
  • Larger minimum room volume requirements (1,540 ft3) than HFC-236fa
  • Potential effect through direct contact

Recycled Halon 1211

  • Recycled material available
  • Uses existing Halon 1211 units
  • Rated for ABC fires
  • Phased out of production
  • Price volatility
  • Potential disposal issues and costs
  • Environmental impact

CO2

  • No environmental impact
  • Low up-front cost
  • Longtime history
  • Lacks "A" rating
  • Increased condensation
  • Shorter discharge range, static charge on discharge
  • Inspection issues (5-year hydrostatic test)
  • High long-term maintenance costs
  • Increased cylinder weight

Dry Chemical

  • No environmental impact
  • Low up-front cost
  • Longtime history
  • Rated for ABC fires
  • Potential damage to equipment
  • Static charge on discharge
  • Significant cleanup required
  • Extensive downtime

Water

  • No environmental impact
  • Low up-front cost
  • Longtime history
  • Does not have a "B" or "C" rating
  • Potential for significant collateral damage
  • Significant cleanup after use
  • Excessive downtime

This article appeared in the November 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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