Fire protection systems in hospitals, health care facilities

With daunting aspects such as ever-changing codes and standards, increasing medical complexity, and dwindling capital budgets, hospitals and health care facilities are among the most challenging building projects.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer November 26, 2012

Neal Boothe, exp Global Inc., Maitland, Fla.

David W. Crossey, Principal/Vice President, Lovorn Engineering Assocs. LLC, Pittsburgh 

Jeff Harris, PE, LEED AP, Director of Mechanical Engineering, HGA Architects and Engineers, Minneapolis 

Michael McLaughlin, Senior Vice President, Southland Industries, Washington, D.C. 

Michael Sheerin, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, Director of Health Care Engineering, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Orlando, Fla.

CSE: What new fire detection or suppression systems are you specifying in today’s hospitals?

Sheerin: We have used the Sapphire suppression system, a replacement for the halon type suppression systems. Hospitals are looking for assurance of performance rather than newer technologies for fire detection and suppression systems.

Harris: We have not used much beyond providing a fully sprinklered building with dry sprinkler heads at loading docks (in a freezing climate) and in the freezers of the kitchen area. Some clients request a double interlocked pre-action system for MRIs and other expensive diagnostic equipment areas. 

CSE: What are some important factors to consider when designing a fire and life safety system in a hospital? What things often get overlooked?

Harris: When in a high-rise, complete area smoke detection will likely be better and more economical for smoke control than a traditional damper/duct smoke detection system, with simpler and better control. Dampers still will be required; however, sequences for smoke control are easier to accommodate with full detection.

Sheerin: The infrastructure of the life safety system really needs to consider the survivability aspects of the code and how it provides notifications by zone. That is often a challenge where designers are unfamiliar with how hospitals are compartmentalized. The same goes for ensuring that the air handler zoning is coordinated with the life safety zones. 

CSE: Describe a recent project in which you integrated fire protection/life safety and the BAS. What hurdles did you face?

Sheerin: We really cannot recommend it. A fire alarm system needs to be UL 864 Listed. A BAS is not typically UL 864 or listed as a fire alarm control panel, and where there is one that is dual listed, it is a significant extra cost and in many ways doesn’t function the same as a building “automation-focused” system. We would encourage that they are separate systems; it better ensures that the setup and reliability of each system is focused on the important task of the system—life safety for the fire alarm, and operational efficiency for the BAS.

CSE: How have changing HVAC, fire protection, and/or electrical codes and standards affected your work on hospitals?

Harris: There are more codes and standards to review and take into account when designing. For electrical, the selective coordination of the emergency power system and the larger electrical equipment means increased space requirements, increased equipment and installation costs, increased design time, and increased design fees. In the case of mechanical, the increased focus on ventilation rates, IAQ, sustainable design, and water usage has become more important. National standards, like “Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities,” require a thorough analysis of the design. This particular standard incorporates ANSI/ASHRAE/ASHE Standard 170-2008, Ventilation of Health Care Facilities.

Crossey: The majority of our projects are hospitals, so we need to keep up with the changes. We are constantly reviewing the codes and addendums to make sure we catch all the changes. You have to stay current, since the technologies and requirements constantly change. 

CSE: Which code or standard proves to be most challenging in hospital work?

McLaughlin: Some of the more challenging codes and standards for health care work include California’s Office of Statewide Health, Planning, and Development (OSHPD) for health care facilities in California, the Unified Facilities Criteria for all Dept. of Defense health care facilities, and the technical standards provided by Office of Construction and Facilities Management of the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. All of these codes and standards are very detailed and provide excellent guidance for the design and construction of their respective health care facilities. This detail can, at times, create challenges when other codes and standards are referenced as criteria, such as those pertaining to sustainability, energy, or other national standards. Without a doubt, the seismic bracing requirements associated with OSHPD present a unique challenge that requires significant diligence by the engineer and contractor. 

Sheerin: ASHRAE 90.1 will always be the “Big Kahuna.” It affects everything from the HVAC system you select to the lighting power density, to how you conduct the energy model comparison for your U.S. Green Building Council LEED credits.

Crossey: Meeting the air change requirements and humidity control within the hospital is always our biggest challenge, especially when we are working on a renovation project and the function of the space has changed. Taking a suite that required six air changes and now trying to get 12 presents major problems with airflow, and in most cases we need to look at replacement of air handling equipment, ductwork, and controls.

Harris: State codes, because they can be totally unique and vary widely in depth, requirements, and enforcement. Some have very logical requirements and are organized in almost a checklist or recipe format by space or department within the building, with specifics on air changes, required number of receptacles, and nurse call devices. Other state codes are far more prescriptive or performance based and therefore more open to interpretation of the design team, owner, and inspector. Energy codes are being adopted and upgraded by most states. The design team must determine exactly what the needs are for each project based on the state in which it is located. At the end of each project, energy use calculations are required in most cases. 

CSE: What advice would you give to another engineer about NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code? Describe a recent project or challenge.

Sheerin: We have been members of the NFPA 99 rewrite and the committee has done a great job overhauling a really important code. That is tough work. Probably the most controversial issue arising was the matter of whether operating rooms were wet locations and if they were required to have isolated power panels. The changes in the code will affect operating rooms forever.