Fire Safety: New codes, materials guide design and construction of today’s healthcare facilities

By Joseph De Luca

According to the latest numbers from the NFPA’s Fire Analysis & Research Division, U.S. fire departments respond to an average of 6,240 structure fires in healthcare properties per year. These fires can cause an average of $52 million in property damage annually1.

The good news is most of these fires, as reported by the NFPA, were small, spreading beyond the area of origin only 4 percent of the time. The fact is the majority of these incidents were 100 percent preventable.

Also reported by the NFPA: fire sprinklers were present in 55 percent of the reported healthcare fires. Property damage per fire was 61 percent lower in properties with wet pipe sprinklers than in properties with no automatic equipment. While any type of sprinkler system reduces property damage, wet pipe sprinklers offer the most protection against property loss.

It is not uncommon to work in a hospital or medical center where the fire sprinkler and fire alarm systems are sparse, outdated or, in some cases, both. In older hospital remodel construction, pre-existing conditions are no longer “grandfathered.” This regulation applies to all existing fire sprinklers and fire alarm systems.

It is a requirement to bring all medical facilities up to standards/codes as defined by the latest NFPA regulations.

The industry is migrating from 2000-year editions of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid NFPA 101 Life Safety Code and NFPA 99 Health Care Facilities Code to 2012-year editions. The major additions and revisions are:

An increase in protection to people from fire and related hazards, including further life safety measures in high-rise buildings. These more stringent requirements are focused on exiting and the number of exits from high-rise buildings is based on number of occupants and type of occupancy for each floor, increased fire extinguishing requirements and detection for fire and alarm annunciation and required emergency lighting and power.

More home-like environments for nursing homes and other healthcare facilities. This involves creating a more healing environment without introducing any interior finish hazards, such as combustible materials found in the common household.

Consideration for new sleeping and treatment suite designs to ensure that exit access to a corridor is maintained, maximum travel distance from a sleeping suite to an exit way is adhered to and the correct number of exits is provided.

The NFPA has released a Quick Compare Booklet that outlines the differences between Life Safety Code 2000 & 2012 for Health Care, which brings clarity to the changes. This will provide project and construction managers the ability to plan projects, budget appropriately and prepare compliance plans.

Other national codes that should be given a closer look when considering fire protection for healthcare facilities include:

NFPA 13: Regulates standards for Fire Sprinkler Systems, has extensive revisions to the commodity classification tables and has new storage requirements, especially for plastics.

NFPA 72, regulates standards for Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, has the most advanced provisions developed for application, installation, location, performance and inspection. This code also covers testing and maintenance of fire alarm and emergency communications systems — including mass notification systems.

In addition to code updates, various materials have advanced fire prevention over the years, which include:

Soft, pliable, intumescent fire stop material that expands to form a solid char that prevents through penetration in a fire situation

Improved doors that feature innovative closures and seals made with materials that expand with heat to provide a better seal

U.S. Gypsum 1-hour fire-rated materials used with fire-resistant materials

Fire pads used for through wall protection in firewalls that expand with increase in temperature

Fire-retardant paint additives that create a self-extinguishing reaction. When applied, it gives drywall a class A rating and wood a class B rating

Sprayable water-based material that dries to form a tough, elastromeric coating. This is used to firestop perimeter joints, construction joints and through penetration openings. When installed properly, this controls the transmission of fire, heat and smoke during and after exposure to fire.

Codes and regulations are ever changing to provide better safety for patients, staff and construction personnel. Construction and design professionals must stay knowledgeable and up-to-date. Thankfully, there are several resources available to assist.


Author: Joseph De Luca
Joseph De Luca is project director at Healthcare Design & Construction.

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Posted July 28, 2016

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