A hospital has many combustible substances such as chemicals, gases, electrical wiring, and heat-dissipating equipment. These substances can lead to serious fire accidents if proper safety measures are not observed. Fire accidents in hospitals are not only the tale of the past, but the present as well. The current pandemic situation is more demanding than usual, in terms of high patient load, additional beds & equipment in ICUs in less space. It is not possible to immediately expand the electrical wiring system. Medical equipment or wires carrying current beyond their capacity tends to overheat, making hospitals vulnerable to fire. This is the present situation in many hospitals. Chief Fire Officer Rajendra Uchake, feels that “Along with fire audit, an electrical audit too is needed.”
The Covid situation has seen an increase in inflammable material in hospitals – sanitiser spills & vapour higher Oxygen content in the air, and PPE kits, made of synthetic material, aid in the quick spread of fire, leaving less or no time to react or respond. The ICUs, in many hospitals, are functioning without any ventilation. In 13 out of 24 cases, the fire began in an ICU. “These hospital ICUs did not function upto 100% capacity before the pandemic. The ventilator, equipment & air conditioners are working 24/7 now, putting pressure on the entire system,” said Santhosh Warick, Director, Maharastra Fire Services. He further added that ideally, air conditioners need to run for 15-16 hours &need a cooling period. A backup air conditioner is necessary, which is absent in small hospitals. Sometimes fire begins from air conditioners where it functions for 24 hours.
In makeshift hospitals, jumbo centres for Covid patients present their own challenges. They are made of highly inflammable materials, but the hospitals are not equipped with sprinklers & fire alarms due to sudden conversion into hospitals. Only fire extinguishers are provided.
Hospital Fire Safety Checklist
Easy Fire Safety Measures For Hospitals During Covid
Here are the 5 gruesome hospital fires between March 2021 to May 2021 due to fire safety violations in India.
- On 26 March 2021, a fire broke out at Mumbai Covid-19 care Sunrise Hospital, killing 8, while over 70 others evacuated.
- On 1st May 2021, 18 die as fire breaks out in Covid -19 care, Welfare Hospital in Gujarat‘s Bharuch district. The fire was caused due to short-circuit in the Covid ward which spread to the ICU.
- On 17th April 2021, Raipur hospital fire tragedy kills 7 in Rajdhani Super Speciality Hospital
- On 9th April 2021, 4 die as fire breaks at a Covid Hospital in Nagpur in the ICU ward, injuring several others. As many as 27 patients were evacuated.
- On 23rd April 2021, 15 Covid patients were charred to death after a fire broke out at Vijay Vallabh Covid Care Hospital in Virar, Parlghar
FIRE SAFETY IN COVID HOSPITALS AND CENTRES
What is the underlying risk?
a) Pre-existing lack of adequate compliance to NBC code on fire and life safety by several hospitals
b) Warehouses for vaccine storage may not be equipped with fire-fighting equipment
c) Buildings such as malls, hotels, temporary camps in field, etc are converted to Covid Centres. They have inherent limitations / deficiencies in terms of the safety and evacuation requirements (staircase, width of corridor, HVAC, emergency lightning etc)
What is increasing the risk due to COVID cases?
1) Hospitals are adding ventilators, air-conditioning units and electrical equipment without enhancing their load or refurbishing the electrical infrastructure
2) The footfall in hospitals is higher leading to higher exposure to fire risks, particularly of patients who have restricted mobility and ability to evacuate
3) Increased pressures due to pandemic may have led to limited time for hospital administrators to focus on dysfunctional fire alarms and smoke detector systems
4) Increased and urgent handling and storage of high volumes of Oxygen
5) Regular Safety audits (fire and electrical) may have been delayed
6) Training and drills may have been limited since the onset of the pandemic
7) Since the hospitals have cramped the available space (due to additional medical equipment’s etc), the evacuation plan may be effective
5 simple steps to avert fires in hospitals even when firefighters are down with covid
Accidents can be avoided as even firefighters are down with covid so don’t wait till they respond.
1. Check all the electrical shafts and clear all the garbage or combustibles immediately.
2. Make sure the panels of all the electrical openings are well covered and closed. Openings in shafts at multiple floors are closed too.
3. Make sure there is water in sprinklers and let it function in automatic mode only. If ventilators are running on automatic mode why can’t sprinklers?
4. Ensure adequate fire extinguishers are placed and all of them are refilled and are ready to use.
5. Make sure the fire exit doors are not locked and are clutter-free.
What can be done immediately to reduce the risk?
1) Conduct a basic fire audit – ensure: (*complete sentences with expert guidance)
o Fire alarms, smoke alarms….
o Electrical load-related….
o Fire exit signage….
o Regarding safe storage and use of oxygen cylinders….
2) Make a fire evacuation plan and discuss it with all staff
3) Establish a working relationship with the nearest fire station, discuss a potential plan with them in advance, save their number on your phone
Families of Patients
Identify nearest fire exits and keep a mental map ready (*although too much to expect from patients or families at this point)
District Magistrates/ City Administrators
1) Map high-risk hospitals and pre-emptive deployment of fire-fighting engines nearby for the next 2 weeks
2) Fire and Rescue/ Emergency services to conduct hospital audits and provide guidance to hospitals on measures to be taken
Private Sector/ Civil Society
Consider the provision of essential fire safety equipment to hospitals as a part of covid relief measures
What should be done in the longer term?
Conduct a fire safety audit to identify and implement measures for ensuring code compliance, including with regard to exterior walls, interior bearing walls, floor, roof, fire check doors, fire enclosure exits, automatic fire detection and alarm system, down-comer pipelines connected to a roof tank, dry riser pipelines that fire-fighters can use to douse upper floors, automatic sprinklers and water sprays, fireman’s lift, fire barriers, escape routes, markings, and so on.
In the past 11 years, Sheena has led the development and management of diverse projects to support Disaster Risk Management programming of non-governmental organisations at the regional, country, and sub-national levels in South Asia as well as with government agencies.