Connectivity with a building automation system (BAS) is a key feature of the latest fire safety systems in hospitals. As they continue to evolve, these systems are able to gather and share data, which helps to alert individuals to potential fire safety issues within health care facilities.

Of course, hospitals pose many challenges to vendors. One of the big issues for fire protection in hospitals is the need for quick assessment and response to emergency events. Because of non-ambulatory occupants, hospitals must focus on a defend-in-place versus an evacuation strategy, making rapid response critical.

Other considerations include ongoing surgical procedures that can’t be interrupted, critical assets such as life-saving and life-support equipment, labs with significant quantities of flammable or hazardous chemicals, and hazardous materials storage.

Tackling complex systems

Hospitals pose a number of fire safety difficulties because of their complex nature. “Numerous regulations must be considered when installing fire protection systems,” says Michele Ottavio, senior product marketing manager, Honeywell Security and Fire, Melville, N.Y. “These include National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) rules, as well as requirements from federal organizations such as the Joint Commission and state codes.”

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The sheer number of hospital staff adds to the complexity, making universal communication difficult in the event of an emergency. Technologies that enable targeted communications — such as display boards that provide message alerts or addressable speakers that deliver a message to a specific area within a facility — can improve fire safety in health care environments.

One of the biggest challenges is upgrading a hospital’s fire alarm system while the building is occupied, according to Rick Tampier, senior director of sales and product strategy, Red Hawk Fire & Security, Boca Raton, Fla. Patient and staff disruptions are not allowed. In fact, most infection control departments require that work above drop ceilings be done in containment, which increases the time and labor required to complete such projects.

For example, Red Hawk recently completed a renovation and system upgrade at a large Chicago hospital in which the company implemented stringent containment procedures to ensure patient safety. In addition to sealing off construction work zones with keypad-controlled doors, Red Hawk installed and monitored a negative air system to draw contaminants into the work zone and away from patient areas by using HEPA filters to capture particles.

Planned and surprise inspections were conducted to ensure that all construction crews adhered to procedures. Red Hawk also made sure that safety measures were a continuous and stable part of the transition to the new system as workers removed ceiling tiles and aging wires and replaced them with updated equipment.

Addressing specific needs

Many new fire safety systems are designed to be part of comprehensive notification systems. For example, Tyco SimplexGrinnell, Westminster, Mass., recently introduced SIMPLEX TrueAlert ES addressable speakers, which feature individual on-off audio control for each device. The speakers can deliver audio messages to specific areas within a hospital. This is accomplished through the fire alarm panel that can be programmed to select exactly which speakers are used — and what message is played on them — during an emergency. This targeted audio paging capability enables the delivery of event-specific information exactly where it’s needed.

The addressable technology also enables a new type of notification appliance self-testing, which saves time, money and labor, according to Maureen Lally, vice president of marketing for North American Integrated Solutions and Services at Tyco. “Work that used to take hours or days, and create significant disruption for patients and staff, is now done in seconds. Hospital facilities managers can conduct testing when and how it’s most convenient.”

Honeywell Security and Fire has developed the ONYX FirstVision navigational tool for emergency responders. It displays critical information on the origin and progression of a fire, allowing firefighters to quickly locate and extinguish it. Detailed information such as access routes, location of hazardous materials and areas of refuge are displayed on custom floor plans via a touch-screen display.

Automated Logic, Kennesaw, Ga., has developed new ways to make BAS integration more effective when it comes to fire safety, according to Larry Bacher, LEED AP, northwest region manager. “Providing simple, intuitive connectivity with a common platform that connects fire, security, HVAC and other aspects of the hospital makes the job of the health care facilities manager easier,” Bacher says. “Although these are separate systems, the manager only needs to learn one interface to operate all these subsystems within the hospital.”

One of the most valuable systems for health care facilities managers is the “Best Practices Program for Meeting Documentation and Joint Commission Requirements” for testing and inspection of fire and life safety systems, according to Dan Finnegan, manager of industry affairs, Siemens Building Technologies Division, Buffalo Grove, Ill. “It guides managers on key steps to compliance with the Joint Commission for fire alarm life safety system testing and documentation, one of the most cited violations by the surveyors of the Joint Commission,” he says.

Although fire alarm systems have changed little in the past few years, innovations such as wireless fire alarm devices and enhanced audio for staged or mass evacuation are now available to enhance performance. “As camera prices come down and many more are deployed, one of the most exciting opportunities is alarm verification for fire alarms,” Tampier explains. “We can automatically bring a live video to operators’ attention when an alarm is activated to help determine whether the activation is real or triggered when there is no actual emergency.”

Evolving IoT adoption

While the Internet of Things (IoT) is quickly making inroads into other areas of facilities management, its adoption for fire safety applications appears to be slower for a variety of reasons.

“To date, the IoT has not significantly impacted fire safety systems in North America because UL-listed systems are predominantly required,” Ottavio says. “Currently, UL does not allow cloud-based access to fire alarm systems. Longer term, if regulations permit, the IoT could offer opportunities to access and connect information, as fire alarm system devices are embedded in the structure of buildings.”

The IoT is not directly connected to most fire protection systems now and probably will not be for quite some time due to UL requirements and time required for approvals, according to Tampier. “We are beginning to see IoT devices interfacing into security and other hospital systems, which in turn may connect to fire alarm systems. Care must be taken that any interfaces do not violate HIPAA requirements.”

Finnegan agrees that the IoT is new to the fire safety environment. True IoT emergence already can be seen in the residential space, with fire detectors telling stoves to power down, for example. However, on the commercial front, individual fire alarm components are not yet operating as true IoT devices — sending and receiving data.

“With the focus of health care on an integrated approach to fire safety, hospitals are ready to take advantage of the IoT,” Finnegan notes. “Keeping in mind that health care and fire safety both have 24/7 uptime requirements and the continued harmonization of model building/fire codes, this will be an area of growth for hospitals.”

As IoT technology is more widely used, hospitals will be able to increase efficiency by looking holistically at their fire and security systems and integrating where it makes sense, according to Lally. “The connectivity that IoT provides will enable hospitals to extract data from their BAS, which includes fire alarms. Hospital facilities managers can then glean meaningful insights from the analysis of this data to help run their buildings more safely and cost effectively.”

Communicating en masse

Mass notification systems (MNS) are an important part of the latest fire safety systems and should at least be considered for all health care facilities, experts agree. These systems can improve the safety and security of an organization by providing alerts and real-time instructions via speakers, texts, visible signals, graphics and other communication methods during a crisis.

Today, mass notification encompasses digital signage, visual/audible strobes and public address systems. A more intelligent approach to mass notification is to provide a staged venue where hospital staff are alerted to a problem via mobile devices and the hospital’s intranet, says Bacher.

“In this scenario, staff are given prescribed instructions through the fire safety system so they can be proactive,” Bacher explains. “The traditional public address and visual/audio strobes are still in use, but the ‘pre-action’ scenario better prepares staff in the event of an emergency. This approach reduces the possibility of panic and ensures a coordinated effort to either shelter in place or evacuate if needed.”

The marriage of MNS and fire alarm control systems is a growing trend that’s expected to continue, Ottavio adds. “It is recommended that MNS integrate with fire safety systems because fire-based MNS have backup and are tested regularly. Also, the value of supervision, maintenance and testing is migrated into the MNS.” If a problem occurs that could compromise the system’s functionality, the fault can be detected and proper personnel alerted of the condition to correct it.

Ottavio says the most effective MNS utilize a combination of audible and visual notification devices, such as strobes, voice communications (indoor speakers) and programmable LED signage. “For multiple buildings or campuses spread across a city, state or even the globe, Voice over Internet Protocol technology can be utilized, delivering live voice messaging via the internet. These systems employ one or more workstations from which security or facilities personnel can send emergency communications.”

Providers of fire safety systems are aware of the growing trend of health care organizations opening small, off-site facilities and specialty clinics. They see some differences in product requirements between these and large hospitals.

Most are single- or two-story facilities, which have easier access and egress and do not have the more complicated medical systems of mainstream hospitals, according to Bacher. In addition, patients within these facilities are more mobile than in hospitals, so the fire safety systems need not be as sophisticated. A simpler solution provides better functionality, as well as easier maintenance.

“These smaller facilities usually do not have full-time building staff. So, it’s imperative that the fire safety system have robust connectivity to a central monitoring console for maintenance, as well as secondary annunciation in the case of emergency,” Bacher adds.

Solid safety record

Despite the many challenges that hospitals face, the field’s fire safety record over the past 20 years has been outstanding, according to Finnegan. “I attribute this to the level of fire safety codes in place, the level of enforcement and compliance by federal, state and local authorities, and the superior level of staff training and fire safety drills that are a part of hospital emergency operations plans.” 

Fire safety technology will continue to support these efforts, providing everything from more sophisticated and reliable smoke detectors to new methods of networking all fire safety devices in hospitals. 

In addition, interfacing the fire safety systems to other hospital utilities, such as a BAS, will increase the effectiveness of both systems while providing hospital staff with more data they can use to improve health facilities operations.

Neal Lorenzi is a freelance writer based in Mundelein, Ill.

Complete view

This interactive graphic shows the fire-alarm system (smoke detectors, fire pull stations, smoke zones) on a typical floor in a high-rise building. Automated Logic

Making connections

ONYXWorks by NOTIFIER is a powerful, graphical life-safety management system that simplifies and centralizes life-safety operations. Honeywell Security and Fire

Part and parcel

It takes a variety of products expertly integrated to meet today’s health care facility codes for fire safety. Siemens Building Technologies Division 

Singular objective

SIMPLEX TrueAlert ES addressable speakers feature individual on-off audio control for each device. Tyco SimplexGrinnell 

Expert service

Hospitals should search for experienced partners who can assess specific facility needs and fully integrate all fire, life safety and physical security requirements. Red Hawk Fire & Security