It’s a pretty sure bet that a hospital does not perform a very good job on Hazard Surveillance Rounds when missing ceiling tiles are discovered by surveyors. This is a slam-dunk issue and an easy one to prevent.
First, we need to fully understand why a missing ceiling tile is a problem. According to section 126.96.36.199.1 in the 2000 edition of the Life Safety Code, in smoke compartments that are fully protected with automatic sprinklers, a corridor wall is permitted to be non-rated and extend from the floor to the ceiling, provided the ceiling resists the passage of smoke. According to NFPA, an acoustical tile and grid suspended ceiling does qualify as resisting the passage of smoke. Unfortunately, the IBC does not have such a liberal definition, and they require a ‘monolithic’ ceiling, which is usually defined as a lath and plaster or gypsum board.
In rooms that are not open to corridors, the ceiling still has to resist the passage of smoke for the benefit of the sprinkler heads and smoke detectors, if present. Heat and smoke will rise to the ceiling, and then travel across the ceiling until detected by the sprinkler or smoke detector (same logic applies to heat detectors). If the ceiling does not ‘resist the passage of smoke’ because there is a missing or breach in the ceiling tile, then the heat and smoke will travel above the suspended ceiling and activation of the sprinklers and smoke detectors will be delayed, or may not happen at all.
But the problem is basic education. We all know that hospitals will eventually leak water, and ceiling tiles are always the casualty of water leaks. Leaky roofs, busted pipes and over-flow toilets will happen to old and new buildings, and the water will eventually drip onto a ceiling tile. A typical scenario will have a maintenance individual remove the wet tile and discard it, and take the appropriate action to resolve the leak. All too often, a replacment ceiling tile is not inserted due to various reasons such as forgetfulness or a need to dry-out the space above the ceiling.
But the ceiling serves an important function of life safety, and according to section 188.8.131.52, alternative life safety measures must be implemented during repairs of required fire protection features. Like it or not, the ceiling tile is part of the fire protection feature, and when tiles are missing, alternative life safety measures need to be implemented. (Some AHJs call them Interim Life Safety Measures.)
The simple thing to do is just replace the missing ceiling tile with another, even if it isn’t the correct one, in order to continue the important fire protection feature of a ceiling that resists the passage of smoke. This requires education of the individuals performing the ruotine hazardous surveillance rounds, and teaching them to check for misisng, broken or partially raised ceiling tiles. And don’t forget the maintenance individuals, so they fully understand the importance of the ceiling tiles. It wouldn’t hurt to educate the contractors who work in your facility, as well. They can unknowingly do as much, if not more, damage than anyone else and they aren’t usually supervised all the time.