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 18/22.214.171.124 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 18/126.96.36.199 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.