With all of the focus on residential buildings in the aftermath of Grenfell, it is easy to overlook the problems faced by those in charge of fire prevention, safety and evacuation for healthcare buildings. These are subject to many of the same challenges as their domestic counterparts, with added difficulties stemming from the fact that many occupants will be sick and of limited mobility, and that’s before we get to the complications created by COVID-19. Such buildings can be a headache for fire installers and building managers, although many of these issues can be overcome with wireless fire devices.
In any healthcare environment, the installation and upgrade of fire systems can be complex, but the process can cause even more upheaval in a hospital. Traditionally, this type of work was done alongside wider refurbishment projects such as rewiring and redecoration, but with rapidly evolving regulations in the post-Grenfell world, it’s not always possible to wait for such an opportunity. Whereas traditional wired fire systems are highly complex to install, however, involving long run cable loops and all the dirt and upheaval that their installation creates, a wireless device can be pre-programmed offsite and installed in minutes, with almost zero impact on the building’s fabric.
With COVID-19, installers working in hospitals have faced further challenges as it has become necessary to limit close contact with patients and staff even further, but even the pandemic has not freed NHS trusts and their private counterparts from their obligations to meet the latest fire regulations. Once again, wireless technology is the obvious solution, allowing installations and upgrades to proceed with minimal time on site. Teams will also spend most of their time fitting wired components in non-public service areas and voids, while patient areas receive wireless devices.
Effective Fire Systems are Vital in Healthcare Environments
There are, on average, 1,500 fires in NHS hospitals every year, the vast majority of which are contained and extinguished before they cause widespread damage or harm to patients and staff. Hospitals are not only hard to evacuate, they are also more prone to fire risks than many other building types. With complex electrical devices, liquid oxygen networks throughout the building and large open spaces for wards and communal areas, there is always a chance of fire incidents occurring, no matter how vigilant the staff may be, and the buildings can benefit greatly from the latest fire technology.
As with all public buildings, hospitals are subject to fire risk assessments covering fire hazards, risks to building users, action taken to mitigate risk, actions to be taken in the event of a fire and training requirements for staff. They key difference is the regulations that govern fire safety in healthcare buildings, which are contained in Health Technical Memorandum 05-03 (HTM05-03), a specific document published by the Department of Health & Social Care that recognises the unique challenges and requirements of hospital buildings.
In effect, HTM05-03 serves as an NHS-specific supplement to the BS5839 Part 1 standard governing the design and installation of fire alarm systems. It takes account of unique factors, such as the fact that sounders are only used in hospitals as a last resort. The primary role of the fire system is to inform staff so that they can call the Fire Service and take a judgement call on whether there is a need for immediate evacuation of any patients, only activating sounders and strobe light alerts as a last resort in order to avoid panic and other risks, such as the causation of epileptic fits.
HTM05-03 also specifies factors that need to be considered in different types of healthcare building, such as a mainstream hospital, a mental hospital and a long-term care facility for older residents, where the specialist considerations and requirements may be very different. It also makes clear that, while patient protection is the number one priority, other factors also need to be considered, such as service disruption, protection of medical records, backup power and resources, and the protection of key parts of the building, such as intensive care.
Overcoming Installation Challenges
Whereas most of the UK’s current hospital buildings were built in the 1960s or later, with allowance made for cable runs and other infrastructure, there are still many buildings dating back to Victorian times. This makes them inherently unsuited to modern wired systems, which often need to be placed along the walls of corridors, if attics, false ceilings or other voids are unavailable. These cables are not only unsightly, they are also complex to install, hard to replace when life-expired and can also be dust traps, a big issue in a hospital environment.
In any medical environment, the advantages offered by wireless fire devices are clear, with up to 90% less cabling, minimal intrusion in the building’s fabric and far less disruption to the daily working of the hospital. In fact, once the system has been specified by expert teams, with digital technology used to pinpoint the optimum position for each device, the installation process itself will only take a few minutes. This saves not only time and disruption, but also costs, both for the installation of the system itself and for making good afterwards.
There is also a trend currently for hospitals to erect temporary structures in their car parks to provide additional space for COVID-19 care and, in the medium-term, to help them catch up with backlogs in other treatment types. It obviously makes sense to integrate these buildings into the hospital’s main fire systems wherever possible, and wireless technology provides a rapid and simple solution for achieving this, even if the existing system is wired.
The Elephant in the Room
In any article of wireless fire technology in medical buildings, it would be remiss not to mention the inevitable scepticism of radio technology in a hospital environment. This apprehension originated in the early days of mobile phones, when archaic analogue devices could interfere with hospital systems, such as ventilators and heart monitors, but the good news is that technology has moved on in leaps and bounds over the past two decades.
Modern wireless fire devices, such as those manufactured by Hyfire, use low voltages and low power radio transmission, which is far less intrusive within the electromagnetic spectrum than older, analogue devices. This make any interference with unconnected devices highly unlikely, although careful testing will always be conducted to ensure that no issues occur.
In fact, HTM05-03 makes specific reference to radio-linked systems, which are acknowledged to offer a number of advantages, such as ease of installation, provided that they are ‘well-designed and engineered’. The document also states that all wireless systems should be adequately surveyed to ensure the robustness of the system and to mitigate the potential for radio frequency interference. Temporary wireless systems are recommended for periods of refurbishment or upgrading, and permanent systems are fully permitted, provided that they can be independently certified to meet the approved standards under BS5839 Part 1 and HTM05-03.
A Genuine Option
Wireless fire devices have come a long way since their introduction in the early-2000s, moving from a niche product to a mainstream, everyday solution that can often cost less than the wired alternatives, once installation costs and making good are taken into consideration. For UK hospitals, under intense pressure to deliver fire improvements without compromising on patient care, and anxious to avoid further delays to already overstretched waiting lists, they are an ideal solution.
The truth is that modern wireless devices are the equal of their wired competitors in every way, and can often exceed them in capabilities and performance. Historical concerns, such as battery life, are now a thing of the past, with batteries lasting up to five years on the latest products and, when faced with the triple whammy of post-Grenfell regulation, the need to minimise disruption to patients and the COVID-19 pandemic, wireless is looking more and more like the first choice for NHS specifiers and fire installers in the healthcare sector.