Fire Alarm Prescription Increases Hospital Protection

Fire Alarm Prescription Increases Hospital Protection

New facility cuts no corners in offering protection

Fire Alarm Prescription Increases Hospital ProtectionWhen the new St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center opened in 2011, it came complete with a top-of-the-line fire detection system that had been the focus of intense planning— and not just from engineers and designers.

“They really are committed to providing an incredible patient environment and experience in the hospital,” said Christopher Curtis, the CH2M HILL engineer who designed the Gamewell-FCI system for this Twin Falls, Idaho hospital. “So, we met continuously with doctors, nurses, administrators and others—they had a lot of input into the process. Really, they wanted minimal disruption, and that’s one of the determining factors why the design team went with a defend-in-place strategy.”

From design to specific technology choices, every piece of St. Luke’s system was chosen to allow patients to have a stress-free environment and to allow doctors, nurses and others to continue their work, even if there was an emergency a few hallways down.

It is a big change for the 95-year-old hospital, which cut no corners when leaving old, leased buildings and moving into the newly-constructed medical center—a 732,000-square-foot, three-story complex with a four-story tower. St. Luke’s Magic Valley holds 184 beds, a dozen operating suites, a cancer center, medical plaza, in-house rehabilitation unit, and more, with up to 1,400 people occupying it on any given day.

A Zoned Approach

In the old buildings, when an alarm was pulled or smoke was detected in one area, a general alarm would ring throughout, unnecessarily disrupting patient recovery and physicians’ work. A primary goal was changing that formula in the new building.

“If you are a patient in the facility and there is nothing going on in your area, yet the horns and strobes are going, you have no choice but to kind of panic,” said Todd Rothfuss, plant manager at St. Luke’s Magic Valley. “We didn’t want to disrupt patient care when we had an alarm going off; we just wanted to concentrate on the area that was affected.”

The answer, according to Curtis, was to design a system based on smoke zones. A fire alarm system comprising 52 nodes, broken down into smoke zones and controlled by a high-speed network of 22 E3 Series fire alarm panels, covers the entire facility.

A selective notification approach is designed into the system, as well. Any problem within a smoke zone only fires off notification within that zone. A “general page-all” call is initiated over the paging network to alert the rest of the hospital staff that there’s an event. But, only that smoke zone is impacted as operations, surgeries and inpatient care all proceed in other zones.

“From an organizational and a patient standpoint, the caregivers do not change anything in the day-to-day operations, even when across the hall they have alarms going off,” Rothfuss said.

This zoned approach meets demands of the quarterly testing that must be done on every alarm in the hospital. Rather than disrupt the entire hospital, different zones and sections can be tested periodically. Curtis noted that hospitals require a lot of continual certification, re-certification, testing and training on their system.

“They have to meet biannual certifications for Joint Health Commission requirements,” he said. “One of the factors on that is the ability to test the system comprehensively and then have a lot of background data to provide to the certification authorities.”

Minimizing disruption even further, a smoke detector going off in a patient’s room will first signal a problem at the nurse’s station rather than in the entire smoke zone. The nurse will investigate, and if a true smoke or fire emergency exists, the nurse will pull an alarm for that zone to elicit a response from key hospital staff and get local first responders en route to the hospital.

The system’s audible alarms are chimes sent through speakers. Having speakers gives St. Luke’s the ability to easily add live or recorded voice alerts. The audibility of the system, mixed with the E3 Series’ inherent survivability and total supervision of components, allows it to quickly evolve to serve as an emergency communications system for mass notification in the future.

Sophisticated Detection

A variety of advanced detector technologies from System Sensor were used throughout the hospital to provide protection and minimize false alarms.

“We have heat detectors, smoke detectors and ion detectors,” Rothfuss said. “We have such a variety of protection levels, and they’re all set for certain areas. The variety of detection that we have is so state-of-the-art that it accommodates everybody.”

For example, he said that in the hospital’s mechanical spaces, where maintenance completes tasks, such as grinding metal, heat detectors are used in place of smoke detectors. Beam detectors are used in the two-story high front lobby to cut down on the amount of smoke detectors needed for proper space coverage while the hospital’s IT server room is covered by an aspirating system. This air sampling system has its own dedicated E3 Series panel tying it to the overall fire alarm network.

Curtis said that another priority was to minimize impacts to surgeries during a fire alarm event. So, in the operating suites, they installed two laser detectors that combine four different technologies to verify the presence of smoke and fire: a photoelectric chamber monitors airborne particulate for smoke; electrochemical cell technology senses for carbon monoxide (CO) produced by smoldering fires; infrared (IR) sensing measures for light and flame signatures; and thermal detection monitors temperature. To ensure rapid and accurate detection, both detectors in each suite are cross-zoned, and their signals are sent to a surgery control desk for alarm confirmation.

“The alarm detection doesn’t immediately initiate a response—it’s verified and checked first,” Curtis said. “That was used to provide kind of a pre-indication that maybe we were approaching a smoke threshold. Certain operations and procedures generate smoke. We wanted to make sure that procedure wouldn’t just set off a fire alarm. And, being that the facility uses a total area coverage approach, we didn’t have the option of eliminating detection in that space altogether.”


According to John Lopez, owner/construction manager of Fire Sentry Systems, Inc. in Kuna, Idaho, the local Gamewell-FCI distributor who handled the project, St. Luke’s fire alarm network is fully integrated with access control systems, air handling, elevator controls and more; heavy integration means a lot of automated responses when an alarm is tripped in a smoke zone.

“Doors would drop; HVAC units would shut down; and dampers would close,” Lopez said. “It would close off the particular smoke zone as if it were the only area of coverage in the building.”

A pre-alarm in the operating suites initiates certain exhaust functions, closing individual dampers, ramping up the dedicated air-handler unit for the suite to 100 percent to exhaust the air—ideally pulling the smoke out before reaching the alarm state. Work on integration with the air-handling system was extensive and mimicked the zoning inherent in the smoke detection system.

“We wanted to minimize disruptions, even on the air systems,” Curtis said. “Patient care being paramount here, under certain conditions, shutting down air to areas of the hospital can be a big deal pretty quickly. We worked out a zoned approach on all of the dampers, and there were 560- plus dampers that had to be controlled. We placed zone controls for dampers within a smoke zone, then cross-zoned all the dampers on the dividing walls. We ended up with probably 30 or 40 separately-controlled zone groups.”

Planning an alarm response was intense, particularly when one issue was infant safety. To avoid an infant abduction taking place due to a bogus fire alarm opening all entryways, the E3 Series system is programmed to limit access to the maternity ward until the alarm is verified and cleared.

The Workstation

Displaying a comprehensive view of the entire facility’s layout, floor-byfloor, with the location and status of all major fire alarm components is a FocalPoint graphic workstation, housed in the maintenance department. With pinpoint accuracy, the screen’s graphics automatically zero-in on the location of an alert in real time.

“That is a huge asset to our team,” said Lisa Knecht, team leader. “It’s a quick display. If we have any trouble come in—any alarms, anything unexpected, if someone’s in the vicinity—we can go straight there and see exactly the detector that’s going off. The address comes up on the screen’s blueprint.”

The Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) required the hospital to include the FocalPoint Mobile monitoring system. This wireless version, housed on a rugged, military-spec tablet, provides the same real-time information on system status and alerts while aiding in emergency response. Located at the emergency room entrance, firefighters can take the tablet with them to quickly decipher the problem and plan an effective response. In a 732,000-square-foot hospital, Lopez said that any technological advantage afforded to the local fire department was a bonus.

“More than anything, they like the idea that the firefighters could take it off the wall and take it with them when they respond to a fire,” Lopez said. “The fire department, once they heard about the mobile, really pushed for it. It can guide them to where the fire is and gives them the quickest path to get to the fire, so it cuts down on their response time.”

Throughout the building, the system features network graphic annunciators (NGA) placed in seven key locations. With a touchscreen display made to function as intuitively as the common ATM, the NGA provides critical fire alarm information including location, reason for alarms, current system status and off-normal conditions. Capable of displaying more than 500 different text messages, the NGA can be programmed to show information key to a specific event, such as emergency contacts information and the types of occupants or contents typically present within a specific area. Overall, Curtis said that the engineer and the flexibility of the system were key to being able to set up the smoke-zone system.

“We really did like the node capability of the system—it is such a distributed network system. That really met the needs of the whole defend-in-place and smoke-zoning strategy, so we would have survivability,” Curtis said.

The system has been called into action already. The hospital had a boiler incident, causing multiple detectors in the plant to go off. Rothfuss said that central dispatch was called; the fire department rolled; and the system worked as designed. No one was hurt and the damage was contained, thanks to the quick response.

“Everything so far that we’ve had has worked the way it’s supposed to work,” said Rothfuss.

Lopez indicated that there are ongoing improvements and additions to the system. The integrator is currently working with St. Luke’s to create new smoke zones while considering the addition of more infant abduction areas.

“Hospitals are renowned for constantly remodeling certain suites and areas based on the different technological updates inherent in healthcare,” Curtis said. “This system will be able to very easily accommodate that now and quite a bit of the future.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Security Today.


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