safety responsibilities. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram
On the main floor of the Health Sciences Centre, at least two bright red posters set out the hospital’s fire safety strategy, but a maze of cluttered hallways on other floors set a different scene.
When The Telegram received a tip about fire alarm concerns at the facility, particularly worries about crowded corridors, lack of fire drills and knowledge among staff about fire procedures, it set out to try to navigate the hallways.
What it found off the main floor — in the bottom level and on wards — was a confusing maze and hallways cluttered with equipment, shelving and supplies despite no parking symbols on the floor, trash bags and empty boxes waiting for pickup in corridors and medical equipment blocking fire exits. On one patient floor, a stretcher was parked in front of a fire equipment cabinet. Someone had written a warning in permanent marker not to block it.
The clutter is despite the bright red poster that reminds hospital staff to be prepared for Code Red. Among those responsibilities — “Unblock fire exits; clear fire escape routes; keep materials on one side of the hallway and clean up excess litter.”
Two other lines on the poster advise staff to “participate in fire drills and know fire escape plans.”
But a doctor who has been at the facility nearly 20 years said not once in that time has there been an opportunity to participate in a fire drill.
“I think it’s a worry,” the doctor said, adding staffing levels and workload make it impossible for staff to take time out for such drills.
Another doctor nearly 10 years on staff also confirmed having no involvement in a fire drill.
The only thing that came close was on one occasion, the doctor of less than a decade said, the alarm went into super-fast mode — which is supposed to indicate a possible real fire — patients were wheeled to fire exits and ones who couldn’t move were locked in their rooms with pillows under their doors. It turned out to be a false alarm.
The doctors say random fire alarms go off frequently — one said it seems to be almost a weekly occurrence for the alarm to sound in warning mode.
But during the week prior to Thanksgiving, the doctors said, the alarms seemed to go into “super-fast mode” multiple times.
Procedure on hold
One doctor said a critical procedure had to be put on hold because staff were unsure if the building would need to be evacuated. It did not.
As for hallway clutter, the doctor of nearly 20 years said that’s a constant problem. But it wasn’t when the physician first started there.
“And it was so much cleaner. I think the whole building is rather overcrowded now,” the doctor said.
“There have been so many accommodations and alterations made, that it’s even more confusing and there are less and less staff at the bedside, which is always my concern.”
If Eastern Health has an emergency preparedness or evacuation plan for the hospital — for the event of fire, flood or power outages, it hasn’t been communicated clearly to staff, or at least all staff, the doctor said.
While staff are advised, according to the fire safety poster, to consult their departmental fire warden or manager, that may not be practical for doctors who treat patients on various floors and areas of the hospital, the physician said.
In 2010, a report from Accreditation Canada, a national body that checks up on hospital performance, noted the hallways at both the Health Sciences Centre and St. Clare’s were “extremely crowded with equipment in corridors which pose a risk to staff and patient safety. In the event of a fire, egress would be difficult.”
The accreditation body’s most recent visit took place in late September. The report has not yet been received by Eastern Health.
The corridors at the Health Sciences Centre on any given day are busy with staff, visitors and patients accessing clinic services. In the event of a fire, only stairs can be used to evacuate — elevators shut down.
By elevators, on each floor, there are wall-mounted floor plans with a “You are here” indication, but the print seems small and the map somewhat complicated for visitors unfamiliar with the layout.
On the bottom floor, it took a Telegram reporter and photographer — conducting a routine visit as members of the public — 15 minutes of navigating the maze to find an exit to the outside. Various services such as physiotherapy, as well as laboratory, medical examiner and other offices, are located there.
Two staff offered directions. One worker said when he first started at the facility another employee handed him a map and told him to visualize the layout as an “H” and wished him luck figuring out the place.
A female worker said that in her three years on staff, she still doesn’t know her way around.
And the clutter?
On the way to finding an exit to the outside, The Telegram passed through a hallway narrowed by construction on one side and a ceiling-high pallet of boxed supplies further along on the opposite side.
St. John’s Regional Fire Department deputy chief of operations Jerry Peach said there hasn’t been an unusual number of calls to the Health Sciences Centre.
“What raises our attention is where there are not good reasons for repetitious alarms,” Peach said.
“None of these (at Health Sciences) leap out as being a major problem. Some of them were accidental alarms people tripped by mistake, some of them were cooking-related … a couple of them were equipment failures.”
He said the department has a close relationship with Eastern Health.
There were only two calls to the hospital the week before Thanksgiving, Peach said.
One was attributed to smoke from cooking and the other was a false alarm.
Eastern Health said the fire alarm has sounded 20 times since January.
It said in an emailed statement that’s half as many as were going off a year prior to 2010, and the authority upgraded the system and worked with the fire department to improve the situation.
The alarms this year, said Eastern Health, have been due to malfunctioning sprinkler systems, humidity, people smoking in or around the hospital, contractors’ drilling or welding, brushfires in the area and staff pulling the alarm because of actual fire concerns.
By December, there will be an upgraded alarm system in the facility.
A spokeswoman also said the fire department inspects the hospital twice a year.
Recent inspection reports have noted the hallway clutter, as well as a need to use Canadian Standard Association-approved extension cords, proof of fire alarm testing and certification documentation, the need for appropriate signage and other maintenance requirements, such as automatic door closures.
As for fire drills, it says there is one a month at the Health Sciences Centre. Eastern Health also said it has held 20 fire safety sessions for staff, has recently finalized its Code Red Plan, distributed action cards to units and placed 200 emergency planning binders around the building, and has 360 fire wardens on site.
And staff, the spokesman said, are continuously reminded about cluttering hallways.