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Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service have issued the county’s largest hospital with an enforcement order after a fire uncovered issues with safety.

The fire – thought to be arson – at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, run by the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHNM), in June 2017. It triggered an emergency evacuation of patients, staff and visitors. This affected some of the wards, A&E, critical care as well as operating theatres.

Shortly after, hospital chiefs declared the event a ‘major incident’; this threat level remained in place for five hours until the hospital was safe for habitation.

A 39-year old man was arrested on suspicion of arson with intent to danger life and manslaughter following the tragic death of an 89-year old patient at the hospital.

What was in the enforcement order?

Fire services use enforcement orders in situations where they witness a serious breach of fire safety legislation. In less serious situations, they would usually issue advice and guidance.

Following an investigation, Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) had ruled that the Trust failed to comply with the requirements of The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. SFRS issued an enforcement order which identified several areas for the Trust’s immediate attention:

  • Full review of staff training and improvement of ‘emergency procedures’
  • Works required to prevent smoke spreading through the hospital
  • Improvement of storage procedures (staff were using corridors as storage spaces)
  • Ensure fire doors are not wedged open

Let’s take a look at each of these areas in more detail.

Fire safety training for employees

It’s vital that employees working in any business premises, large or small, know what to do in an emergency. Not only that, it’s a legal requirement for staff to have an adequate level of safety training.

If you’re a business owner, are you confident that your staff would cope in the event of a fire? Or would the stress of an unfamiliar situation cause them to panic and behave erratically?

The level of training your staff should receive will vary. From a legal perspective, it will depend on the size of your company and the inherent workplace risks. Some work environments present more safety challenges than others.

Royal Stoke chief executive, Paula Clark, mentioned in her statement that the hospital would ensure all staff received ‘preparedness training’. While we can draw no conclusions about training at the hospital, this would suggest some staff did not know how to react to this fire.

Our experienced fire safety trainers run a number of courses, including fire safety awareness training and practical fire extinguisher training.

The danger of smoke spreading during a fire

The enforcement order made reference to works needed to prevent smoke spreading around the hospital during a fire. Chief executive, Paula Clark commented, “I want to reassure our patients and visitors that we have been working to prevent any similar spread of smoke in the future.” She continued, “We are reviewing and making the appropriate necessary adjustments to the compartment and sub-compartment walls, floors, service risers and ventilation systems of the hospital building.”

Studies have estimated how quickly smoke travels in a fire. It takes just a few minutes for smoke to fill a house. Many victims of fire succumb to smoke inhalation before the fire itself even reaches them. So, in a hospital as large and busy as the Royal Stoke, we can only imagine the devastation that unchecked smoke would cause.

The chief executive’s comments imply that the hospital had many compromised areas through which smoke was allowed to travel on the day of the fire. Compartmentation – a form of passive fire protection – dramatically restricts smoke’s ability to travel.

How does compartmentation work?

Compartmentation is the process of dividing a building into separate sections, or compartments. Each one is fire-proofed, using fire-rated materials. So, if one compartment catches fire, the others remain protected and resistant to fire until the materials break down. Fire safety regulations recommend the use of 30 minute fire-rated materials, meaning each compartment can resist fire for up to half an hour.

Not only does compartmentation resist fire, it also resists smoke. But that’s assuming the building’s integrity hasn’t been compromised. For example, a contractor visits the hospital to fix a burst pipe, unaware of fire safety regulations. He cuts through the fire-rated pipe seal and doesn’t replace it, or report it damaged. It goes unchecked until a fire breaks out by which time, it’s too late.

We’re experts in passive fire protection. Find out more about what’s involved and how it can save lives.

Why corridors are never a good place for storage

When we carry out Fire Risk Assessments, we often see boxes and other items piled high in corridors, usually due to lack of dedicated storage space. It’s also due to lack of staff training and awareness of fire safety. Corridors often double up as fire exit routes and should be kept clear of any potential hazards or obstacles. Ms Clark hinted that this wasn’t the case at the Royal Stoke. “As a direct response to the initial guidance from Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service immediately after the fire, we have also changed the way we store materials in corridors.”

A Fire Risk Assessment will alert you to any parts of your premises which could be unsafe during an emergency. This will apply to staircases and exits as well as corridors. Remember, during daylight hours, a corridor with a few boxes in it may look harmless. But during a fire, when visibility is reduced and chaos surrounds you, those boxes could prove fatal.

The importance of not wedging fire doors open

You’ve just read about compartmentation and passive fire protection and how it saves lives. The fire door is a fundamental component of passive fire protection. In fact, it’s possibly the most important piece of fire safety equipment there is.

A fully functioning fire door places a physical barrier between you and fire. When boxes or a chair are wedging it open, it can no longer act as that barrier. It’s easy to become complacent about a door you walk through multiple times each day. Try and remember that if it’s marked ‘fire door’, its job is so much more than a mere entrance or exit.

The fire at the Royal Stoke University Hospital was clearly a sobering experience for all involved. A final word from Paula Clark: “There are lessons to be learned from this fire but that should not take away from the outstanding response from UHNM staff on that night. I’d like to offer my thanks to the affected patients and relatives at the Royal Stoke who dealt with a frightening situation with dignity and understanding, which was a great help in getting things back to normal as quickly as possible.”

 

Nikki Harman

Nikki Harman

Marketing Manager

Qualified marketer Nikki has over 20 years’ professional experience. She is responsible for our strategic marketing planning and implementation, including branding, website, lead generation, social media and PR.

Read more blogs from Nikki.

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