Fire Drill Response

A recent question by a reader asked if fire-rated doors and smoke compartment barrier doors that close on a fire alarm could be opened before the fire alarm is considered ‘all clear’. The Life Safety Code (LSC) does address certain key actions required by staff during a fire drill, but it does not specifically restrict the use of doors in fire or smoke compartment barriers while the fire alarm is activated. Section 18/19.7.1.1 of the 2012 LSC requires the healthcare occupancy to have a written plan for the protection of all persons in the event of a fire; for the evacuation to areas of refuge; and for the evacuation of the building when necessary.

Section 4.7 of the same codes also makes similar statements regarding orderly evacuation during a fire drill. It makes sense that opening and closing doors in a fire or smoke compartment barrier would be necessary in order to evacuate patients to another smoke compartment, or to evacuate the building. It also makes sense that responding emergency personnel (both internal and external) would have to open and close doors in order to assist with the evacuation or address the fire.

But perhaps what the reader was referring to is the action of the people who are not responding to the fire alarm, and they are going about their regular activity. Doctors, nurses, technicians, visitors, volunteers, vendors, and others may be ignoring the fire alarm and just continue to walk through doors to other parts of the building. These may be the people who the reader was referring to that are opening and closing fire and smoke compartment barriers doors during a fire alarm.

The Joint Commission standard EC.02.03.03, EP 4 says staff who work in buildings where patients are housed or treated participate in drills according to the hospital’s fire response plan. This is a little bit more than is required by section 18/19.7.1.2 of the 2012 LSC, which says employees of healthcare occupancies shall be instructed in life safety procedures and devices. A fire drill is certainly one method of instruction in life safety procedures and devices. But neither the Joint Commission standard (and EP) and the LSC reference actually requires all staff to participate in every fire drill. It just wouldn’t be practical in a healthcare facility that is providing treatment and care to patients. Business must continue even during a fire alarm, so some staff must continue with their assigned responsibilities.

Therefore, hospitals get to decide for themselves how their staff should react during a fire alarm, as stipulated in their fire response plan (also known as the Fire Safety Management Plan). Most hospitals that I have had the pleasure of working with require staff in the immediate area of the fire emergency respond by following R.A.C.E. (Rescue; Alarm; Contain; and Evacuate or Extinguish) and staff away from the origin of the alarm simply close doors and be ready to receive patients. Some hospitals have staff away from the origin of the alarm to dispatch one individual with a fire extinguisher to the scene of the alarm.

You can write into your plan what you want your staff to do. If you want them to stop at each closed door and not traverse through it until the ‘all-clear’ is given, that is your decision, but I don’t think that is a very practical idea, or one that would be followed. When a fire alarm is activated, it represents a potential disaster and even though it may seem that an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ call is needed, that is not the practical thing to do as a first response. If your facility has 1200 workers on the average day shift, and the fire alarm is activated in the 4th floor ICU, you do not want all 1200 workers to rush up to the 4th floor ICU; that is not practical.

The concept of fire response in a healthcare occupancy is all healthcare workers are trained in the facility’s fire response plan. You count on the staff in the immediate vicinity of the fire to respond appropriately and quickly. Once the alarm is announced, certain trained individuals rush to the area where the alarm originates. The rest of the staff is supposed to reply in accordance with your fire response plan. Quite honestly, unless the staff has specific duties during a fire alarm, moving about the hospital performing their normal duties in areas away from the alarm would be considered appropriate. You actually need the hospital to continue to function even during a fire drill. Each fire drill will not asses every staff member’s response; it just is not practical in such a large setting. That is one reason why there are so many fire drills in a hospital each year: By sheer quantity you hope to get nearly all of the staff to participate in at least one drill.

Another issue is physicians. What should they do during a fire alarm? Many hospitals are writing into their fire response plan that physicians on a nursing unit that are not actively providing care or treatment to a patient, should report to the nurse’s station and await direction. In a Surgery department, unless the operating room is the scene of the fire, you pretty much want surgeons and nurses to remain in the operating rooms and continue with the business at hand, and wait for further instructions from the surgery nurse’s station.

I don’t know if I’ve helped the reader with his question, but if it were me, I would let people do what they normally do, unless they have specific responsibilities during a fire alarm. If the reader is really concerned about certain fire or smoke compartment barrier doors being opened in close proximity to a fire, then it would be practical to station one person at the door preventing unauthorized individuals from opening that door.

Quarterly Fire Drills

Q: There is a matrix floating around on the web that describes Joint Commission’s compliance for fire drills. It breaks the quarters down as Q1=January, February, March, and Q2=April, May, June, etc. Does this mean that for a first shift drill last run in April, we can have the next drill run in September and still be compliant, + or – 10 days?

A: No, not for Joint Commission. In their Overview to the Environment of Care chapter in the Hospital Accreditation Standards manual, Joint Commission says quarterly or once per quarter means “every three months, plus or minus 10 days”. Now, I’ve heard Joint Commission engineers say they will allow this to be interpreted as follows: If the drill was conducted on April 15, that means three months from April is July. July plus 10 days means August 10 and July minus 10 days means June 20. So, according to the engineers from The Joint Commission, the window of opportunity is 51 days: from June 20 to August 10. That scenario would apply to any date the drill was conducted in April.

But to be honest, the Overview of the Joint Commission manual doesn’t say that. Other people are interpreting the Overview to mean if the drill was conducted on April 15, then 3 months after that is July 15. July 15 plus 10 days is July 25, and July 15 minus 10 days is July 5. That leaves you with a 20-day window of opportunity. 20 days is significantly less than 51 days, so you will be at the mercy of the surveyor to determine which one they enforce.

But in the past year, CMS has stated unofficially that they do not like any scenario that allows more than 3 months for a fire drill. In other words, they don’t mind the “every three months, minus 10 days”, but they don’t like the “every three months, plus 10 days”.

Quarterly Fire Drills

Q: We are required to conduct a fire drill every quarter. If I did one on March 22, when is the earliest and the latest dates that I can do the next one?

A: It depends on who your AHJ is. CMS would allow it to be conducted anytime during the quarter so the next drill could be done as soon April 1 or as late as June 30.

HFAP requires 3 months from the previous activity, with the next drill performed during the third month. So 3 months from March 22, is June 22, the 3rd month would be June, so the next fire drill should be conducted anytime in June.

Joint Commission requires 3 months from the previous activity plus or minus 10 days. But they have a different interpretation on how this is calculated: Three months from March 22, is June. Plus 10 days is July 10, and minus 10 days is May 22, so according to their interpretation, the next quarterly fire drill can be between May 22 to July 10.

But be aware: CMS does not like the idea that a quarterly fire drill could be conducted beyond the quarterly time period. Since the March 22 fire drill was conducted during the first quarter, they would want the second fire drill conducted during the second quarter, and July is not in the second quarter.

Too Many Extra Fire Drills

Q: We have a building adjacent to our main hospital (separated by a two hour fire wall) that is a mixed occupancy.  There are three stairwells that serve this building, but one has been taken out of service for emergency egress due to a large construction project outside. I have been conducting two fire drills per shift per quarter in this particular building for almost two years now and I fear I have fire drilled our employees in that building to the point that they have become desensitized to the fire alarms.  It’s my understanding that the fire drill frequency can be specified in our ILSM policy.  Here’s my thought – I’d like to state in our ILSM policy that any project lasting longer than a year will no longer require additional fire drills.  That is; a whole year’s worth of additional drills is plenty and more drills can actually have a negative impact instead of a helpful one for our fire response efforts.

A: I think your thought process is valid and sound. Conducting too many fire drills does in fact desensitize one to an actual event. Since the accreditation organizations do not specify exactly what your ILSM policy must say, then I agree that you can reduce the number of ‘additional’ drills based on the length of time that the deficiency exists.

However, the accreditation organization will be somewhat suspicious of this action so you need to be prepared. Do a risk assessment identifying the pros and cons of doing additional fire drills for an extended period of time. Have the risk assessment draw a conclusion. Present this risk assessment to the Safety Committee and ask them to review and approve it. Make sure you get the committee’s response into the minutes. If challenged by a surveyor about doing less than the traditional amount of fire drills for ILSMs, then present the risk assessment and a copy of the Safety Committee’s minutes as evidenced of a thoughtful and considerate decision. The surveyor may accept your position and he/she may not. It’s a crap shoot.

On another point… is the stairwell that has been removed from service a ‘required’ means of egress? If there is a chance you can get your architect to deem the affected stairwell is not a required means of egress, then you can declare the stairwell is no longer a required means of egress and ILSM would not be needed. That means since the stairwell is not a required means of egress then blocking off the discharge is not a Life Safety Code deficiency. If you go that route, make sure you get a decision in writing by the architect and run that through your Safety Committee.

OR Fire Drills

Q: We just had an accreditation survey and the surveyor cited us for not having a separate fire drill in the Operating Room Suite. I don’t see this in any code or standard.

A: You are correct in saying that there is no standard which requires a fire drill to be performed in the surgery department. However, there are circumstances where this would be expected, and a surveyor could cite you for not conducting a drill in the OR. Here are some situations that would lead a surveyor to believe a fire drill should be conducted in the operating rooms:

  • Surveyor preference. It is possible that the surveyor has a prejudice for fire drills in the Surgery department. If he/she failed to provide a reason why they cited this finding, then it may be presumed they just did so, because they think it should be done; not because it needs to be done. The surveyor needs to say why a fire drill is needed in the Surgery department.
  • Previous history. If there has been a historical event in your Surgery department (such as a fire during a surgical procedure), then it is a reasonable expectation by the surveyor that you address this issue with fire drills. However, if this is the case, the surveyor needs to state the reason why they are citing you for not conducting fire drills in the Surgery department.
  • Lack of documented response during fire drills. According to accreditation standards, staff must participate in fire drills. This does not mean that a fire drill must be conducted in every unit in the hospital, as staff on the 1st floor may participate in a drill conducted on the 4th floor, as long as the building’s fire alarm system was activated. If the source of the alarm was on the 4th floor, staff on the 1st floor are still expected to participate, by closing doors, and preparing to receive evacuated patients. In many hospitals the expectation is to suspend the start of surgeries during a fire alarm until the ‘all-clear’ signal is given. The way to document that all staff participate in fire drills is to have observers on select units and floors to document what the staff did. If you have no documentation that someone observed how the staff in Surgery responded to the alarm, then I can see where the surveyor may have a legitimate concern for a finding.

If in fact you do have documentation that observed the Surgery staff’s response during a fire drill, then that should qualify as participating in a drill.

Fire Drills in Sleep Labs

Q: For an EEG sleep testing unit with an overnight stay in a business occupancy, are fire drills required quarterly or annually ?

A: Annually. The frequency of fire drills is determined on the occupancy designation of the facility, and chapter 38/39.7.1 of the 2000 Life Safety Code says fire drills are required to be conducted ‘periodically’. If you are Joint Commission accredited, they will expect annual fire drills, as would most any other authorities having jurisdiction. What may have you concerned is the term ‘sleeping rooms’ for the Sleep Lab. These are not sleeping accommodation rooms, so Hotel and Dormitory occupancy is not the correct designation for occupancy, as they would require quarterly fire drills. The Sleep Lab ‘sleeping rooms’ are actually exam rooms, which are monitored closely by staff all the time the patient is sleeping. The Sleep Lab is considered an out-patient service, and since there are no sleeping accommodation rooms, it can be designated as business occupancy, which allows for annual fire drills. Now, if you want to upgrade the occupancy designation to Hotels and Dormitories, then feel free to do so. But there will be more than just additional fire drills to contend with, and I would not recommend it.

Offsite Fire Drills

Q: We have a building that is a business occupancy with the exception of two ambulatory care units. I know we have to do fire drills four times a year because of this. One of the ambulatory care units is on the second floor and the other unit is on the main floor in a different wing. If we drill a location other than one of the ambulatory care units, do we need to have someone at each ambulatory care unit also? Or if we drill one ACU do we also need someone at the other one? And do we just observe the staff, or we required to ask the staff all the fire drill questions each time? We are Joint Commission accredited.

A: According to the accreditor’s standard EC.02.03.03, EP 4, it requires staff who work in buildings where patients are housed or treated to participate in drills according to the hospital’s fire response plan. Here is what that EP means:

  • The building that you mentioned is a combination business occupancy and ambulatory care occupancy, therefore it qualifies as a building that treats patients, and this EP applies.
  • The EP only requires staff to participate in fire drills according to what your fire response plan says they should do in the event of a fire. So, they should do something, depending on whether or not the source of the alarm is in their area or not.
  • If the source of the alarm is in their area, then they must follow your fire response plan, which is often referred to as R.A.C.E. That means they must rescue anyone in harm’s way; activate the alarm; close the doors; and extinguish or evacuate, depending what your plan says. If the source of the alarm is not in their area, then they probably just close the doors, which is part of the fire response plan, too.
  • How are you going to ensure your staff participated according to your fire response if you do not have someone observing them? You can post observers in various compartments to watch the staff’s response, the building’s response and the fire alarm system’s response. But, there are other methods, such as self-observation, which requires a manager or supervisor to fax in a report that self-analyzes their level of participation. I’m not a big fan of self-analysis, as they tend to forget to send in the fax and they often times embellish their report.
  • Keep in mind there is no direct requirement to have observers in various departments during fire drills. There used to be, but that standard was removed years ago. But the question a surveyor may ask is how do you know that your staff is participating? This can be done via spot checks, and self-reporting, or posting a couple observers in various departments, and move them around so you catch all departments in a 12 month period.

So, the bottom line is… Yes, you have to have some sort of observation to ensure staff participated in the drill, but the standard does not dictate how many departments need to be observed or how often. That is left up to you to decide. Also, Joint Commission’s hospital standards apply in offsite locations where hospital departments are located, even if those offsite departments are not healthcare occupancies.

Do Table Top Exercises Count as Fire Drills?

 Q: Do table top exercises count as a fire drill? We are updating our old policies and traditionally it has been allowed to have tabletops count as a fire drill, as long as half of them were actual Evacuation Fire Drills.

A: No, table top exercises, while they can be very helpful in the planning phase, are not an acceptable substitute in lieu of actually performing the fire drill. The reason why is you are required to perform multiple functions during a fire drill:

  • Evaluate staff’s response to a fire situation, both at the point of the alarm and away from the point of the alarm
  • Evaluate the building’s response to the fire alarm
  • Evaluate the fire alarm’s response to the drill
  • Confirm that the alarm signal was transmitted to the fire department during the drill

In short: How are you going to confirm and evaluate all of that if you do not perform the drill?

Actual fire emergencies are usually an acceptable substitute in performing a fire drill, provided you still are able to make all of the evaluation and confirmations. However, that is not easy to do when you and your staff are responding to an actual alarm.

Sorry, but you still must perform the required amount of fire drills in your facility. And by the way, many accreditation organizations have changed the way they define time. The phrase ‘quarterly’ used to mean you could perform the fire drill anytime during the calendar quarter. Now, Joint Commission and HFAP will require you to perform a fire drill 3 months from the previous drill, plus or minus 10 days. That will require more planning and organization on your part.

Extra Fire Drills for ILSM

Q: Joint Commission standard LS.01.02.01, EP 11 requires the hospital to perform an additional fire drill during periods of Life Safety Code deficiencies that cannot be immediately corrected or during periods of construction. This standard goes on to say that the need for additional fire drills is based on the criteria in the hospital’s ILSM policy. Let’s suppose that a hospital has deficiencies in the Life Safety Code that lasts only for two, three, four days or maybe even a week. Would the hospital still be required to perform an additional drill for such a short duration of Life Safety Code deficiency? What if the hospital’s Safety Committee decides to state that as part of their ILSM policy criteria, it won’t conduct an additional fire drill per shift per quarter unless the Life Safety Code deficiency lasts beyond a certain amount of time, say maybe a month. It seems to me that a Safety Officer would be on the hook for an additional drill per shift per quarter if ILSMs are only in place for a week is overkill and would serve only to further desensitize staff to its fire alarm system.

A: Joint Commission’s standard LS.01.02.01, EP 11 is not prescriptive, meaning they choose not to specify when the extra fire drill needs to start to compensate for a certain deficiency. They don’t even tell you which deficiency the extra fire drill is even required. That is left up to you to decided and state in your ILSM policy.

I tend to think like you, in that the extra fire drill per shift per quarter does not make sense for a short-term LSC deficiency. But when is a LSC deficiency short-term and when is it considered long term? Perhaps a better approach is to ask: “When will the extra fire drill per shift per quarter be required?” Once you decide when the extra fire drill is required, that should help you decide how soon you need to implement the extra fire drill.

When I was the Safety Officer at the hospital where I worked, I felt the extra fire drill was needed when an exit was obstructed or the access to an exit was obstructed. The reason I believed this, is when you do a fire drill one of the items you are assessing is that staff knows the proper way to evacuate patients (using simulated patients, of course). If the path is obstructed, they need to know the alternative path and be able to demonstrate that. The extra fire drill should assesse the staff’s knowledge on evacuation routes.

Some LSC deficiencies aren’t as obvious so you need to ask yourself “Should I conduct an extra fire drill for this deficiency?” for all of the possible scenarios of LSC deficiency that you could have. Set up a Q&A for all the potential LSC deficiencies that you may encounter at your hospital, then ask yourself is an extra fire drill necessary. Here is an example:

  • Failed fire dampers?                                                   I would say no.
  • Obstructed exit?                                                          I would say yes.
  • Unsealed penetrations in a fire/smoke barrier?          I would say no.
  • Fire alarm pull stations not working?                         I would say yes.
  • Smoke detectors not working?                                  I would say no.
  • Obstructed access to an exit?                                     I would say yes.
  • An inoperative fire pump?                                         I would say no.

Ask yourself: “Would the staff benefit from an extra fire drill if this feature of life safety was not working?” I would say obstructed exits, obstructed access to exits, and inoperative fire alarm pull stations are easy to say ‘yes’ to… but the others? I’m not so sure as I don’t think the staff would benefit from an extra fire drill for an inoperative fire pump, or a failed fire damper. The next question is: “When do I begin the extra fire drills?” Well, if you have defective pull stations or an obstructed exit, you are going to do education and awareness training to the staff affected by these deficiencies. The purpose of the extra fire drill is to assess the staff’s knowledge of these LSC deficiencies after you have conducted the education and training. So, what is reasonable for an obstructed exit? A month after the exit became obstructed? I would say not. Maybe a week after the exit becomes obstructed, but I would say not any more than a week. The sooner the better, as you (the Safety Officer) want to know for sure that the staff knows about the LSC deficiency and takes appropriate alternative action. But this is my opinion, and you need to take this to your Safety Committee and let them offer their suggestions before you finalize your policy. Document this assessment in the form of a matrix, spread sheet or a written narrative in your ILSM policy, and have your Safety Committee review it and approve it. Then the surveyor can only hold you to what your policy says you should do.

Just as a reminder… The extra fire drills for ILSM purposes need to be conducted in the area(s) affected by the LSC deficiency. That means if you have an obstructed exit discharge due to construction, you need to perform the extra fire drills in all areas affected by the deficiency. That may mean you are doing multiple extra fire drills per shift per quarter, until the LSC deficiency is resolved. Also, each fire drill needs to activate the building’s fire alarm system, but during the hours of 9:00 pm and 6:00 am you are not required to activate the audible signals on the fire alarm system.

Fire Drill Observers

Q: We are getting ready to complete our fire drill schedule and need clarification. When conducting fire drills how many remote fire zone/smoke areas are required to be observed and findings recorded? We could not find anything specific in the standards that address this.

A: You won’t find the answer in the current edition of the Life Safety Code or the accreditation standards because it isn’t there. It used to be in the standards back years ago, but the requirements to have observers in other zones during fire drills were dropped. What is now required for fire drill observation is generally identified as staff who work in buildings where patients are housed or treated must participate in drills according to the hospital’s fire response plan. That does not mean a fire drill has to be conducted on every unit. It means staff must participate in fire drills according to your fire response plan. Most hospitals use the acronym R.A.C.E. to describe their fire response plan, which requires staff to confine the fire by closing doors. So, if the fire is on the 4th floor west wing, staff on the 1st floor east wing can only close doors based on the fire response plan. How do you confirm that staff participated in a fire drill on a particular unit? By sending someone to walk through and observe if they closed the doors. Since the standard does not say all staff must participate in all drills, then I see no reason to have observers in every unit during every fire drill. I see a more realistic approach of having a program of observing every unit at least once per year. Depending on the physical size of your hospital, you might be able to observe every unit once per year with just a couple of observers per drill. So, the bottom line is you still need to confirm that staff participated in the drills, which usually equates to having observers… it’s just that the accreditation standards do not specify how many units need to be observed during a drill.