Enhancing Healthcare Safety with Fire Alarms, Mass Notification

Published: September 23, 2012

A small fire breaks out in a hospital’s outpatient wing. Immediately the fire alarm system kicks into action … hospital engineering staff is alerted to the activated device location, the fire department is called and an audible chime strobe informs the public. In the ambulatory care’s private mode area, nurses are notified via the chime strobe and an alarming device on the nurse call system. Now, emergency egress can calmly take place.

Of course, such a potentially disastrous scenario would only proceed so smoothly if a robust, code-compliant fire alarm/voice evacuation system had been carefully specified and installed, along with a well-trained facility staff manning the system.

“Hospitals are very unique, complicated buildings, and our systems are the most complicated within a hospital because we have to interface with so many other systems,” explains Kurt Brinkman, principal of Oakland, Calif.-based Intrepid Electronic Systems.

Part of the complexity in hospital projects is created by the fact that the systems designer and supplier must closely coordinate with so many different trades, not to mention dealing with stringent hospital code requirements mandating specs like device placement and communication protocols. Using the recent integrated fire alarm/mass notification systems Intrepid Electronic Systems installed at the renovated VA Palo Alto Health Care System campus and the new John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., as examples, this article addresses these challenges. 

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Fire Integrated With Security, HVAC

The need for a large capacity system that could be easily reconfigured and expanded led Intrepid to utilize a NOTIFIER NFS-2 3030 system controlled by an ONYXWorks workstation for both hospital projects. “The system is very modular and scalable, so it allows adding features and functions pretty quickly,” says Brinkman.

Before choosing this particular solution, James Veitch, VA’s electronics supervisor for engineering services shopped around. “I reviewed a lot of systems, looked at reliable manufacturers and watched out for proprietary systems to avoid being locked into one company.” In addition, Veitch brought in an independent fire protection engineer to review all proposals.

The Intrepid Electronic Systems team then phased out the existing central system, and phased in the new technology, while keeping the fire alarm system operational throughout. Thanks to the new system’s architecture, just five control panels were sufficient to replace the existing 36, thereby simplifying the owner’s maintenance program and saving a tremendous amount of expense throughout the system’s lifetime.

With lots of capacity and functionality built into the system, mass notification can easily be communicated across the campus in the form of audio, LED strobes, computers, phones and mobile devices. In sync with code requirements, the system was specifically programmed to encapsulate varying signals to different facility areas to prevent unnecessary panic among bed-ridden patients, for example.

Integrated with the HVAC, security and elevator systems, to name a few, the VA’s new fire alarm installation can also shut off damper and fans for smoke control, operate the elevators and override the security system to unlock doors for enhanced egress.

On the John Muir project, similar features were incorporated, except the mass notification was scaled down to a chime system without speakers, and open-plenum wire was specified instead of conduit. All together the new 250,000-square-foot, $400 million hospital incorporated more than 1,100 fire/smoke dampers, approximately 1,400 ceiling smoke detectors, 300 horns/strobes, 50 manual pull stations, 50 duct smoke detectors, two control panels and one network station.

Managing Hospital Projects

Of course, all this functionality didn’t happen by itself as these types of projects require lots of pre-engineering. Furthermore, the fire alarm system is usually the last to go in, so working closely with the subcontractors is essential in commissioning the system.

“For the VA, it was a lot easier because it was design-build, and we were responsible for all the trade coordination,” explains Brinkman. “We understood the other suppliers’ requirements, so we were forced to look at the issues right up front. This way, my guys were able to go out and clarify all the connections to our systems.”

Brinkman also stresses the importance of scheduling. “It’s so much easier to coordinate beforehand, rather than having people trying to figure out what to do in the field. You don’t want to be an island out there in a big hospital.”

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series