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As seen in the summer 2010 edition of Life Safety Digest.

Prescription for Safety – Fire-Rated Glass Meets Unique Needs of Healthcare Occupancies

By Jeff Razwick

As part of well-rounded healthcare, doctors and nurses advocate multiple preventative measures. Why? Because protection provided by yearly checkups, screenings and immunizations can significantly reduce the chances of developing life-threatening conditions, as well as help reduce future medical costs.

This mindset should also extend to the design of healthcare facilities. Whether constructing new buildings or retrofitting existing ones, incorporating a range of fire-preventative and protective measures can help minimize injury and property damage in an emergency.

In addition to occupant education and installation of sprinklers and alarms, building compartmentation is especially important in hospitals and other medical facilities given occupants’ mobility limitations and the presence of flammable gases. In many modern healthcare facility designs, fire-rated glass supports compartmentation needs while meeting other goals such as improving patient well being with access to natural light.

Critical Role of Compartmentation in Hospitals

Hospitals and medical centers hold high volumes of people, often in contained areas for extended periods. Such facilities are frequently multi-story buildings, making it challenging for numerous individuals to funnel down and out in the frenzy of a fire. As such, it is necessary that the building design and construction protect people against fire and smoke for prolonged time spans.

This concern is even more pointed in regards to severely ill patients. Individuals in intensive care, neonatal and recovery units, among others, are unable to perform self-preservation and in nearly all cases, require the assistance of staff members to safely exit the building. Further, because many of these patients rely on various life support devices, evacuation is often considered more dangerous than keeping them in place. As a result, many hospitals train staff members to remain with their patients until a fire is extinguished.

To account for this, healthcare facility designs often take a defend-in-place stance and incorporate fire-rated materials that slow a fire’s spread and allow adequate time for firefighters to arrive.

In a commentary on fire safety in healthcare occupancies, Daniel J. O’Connor, chair of the NFPA Technical Committee on Health Care Occupancies, underscored the need for in-hospital fire protection: “Because some occupants are incapable of movement or slow to evacuate, a healthcare facility resembles a ship at sea: it is better to keep the fire from the patient than to remove the patient from the fire. Thus, occupants must be defended in place. As a result, healthcare facility design and operation must incorporate methods by which a fire can be detected early, contained, and fought rapidly and successfully.”1

Another unique aspect of healthcare facilities is the use of specialized equipment in oxygen-rich environments. This practice increases the risk of high-intensity fires and gas explosions – especially for facilities hosting research labs. Fire-rated materials can help provide necessary protection for occupants who must remain inside when these unexpected situations occur. Such materials help prevent rapid fire development and can also play a key role in slowing the spread of smoke and fumes.

Beyond Building Compartmentation

In recent years, another key point of emphasis in healthcare facility design has been increasing the amount of daylight in interior spaces. This trend is backed by studies that show greater amounts of light help create environments in which patients heal faster. For example, a 2004 Texas A&M University study states: “Patients in a room with higher daylighting levels had shorter stays than those with lower daylight levels.”2

With improved healthcare on the line, hospital and other healthcare facility owners are increasingly seeking building designs that incorporate greater amounts of glazing. However, when working to meet building compartmentation codes, a point of contention arises: There are many different types of fire-resistant materials that meet life safety code requirements, but relatively few that allow the transfer of daylight.

Due to advances in manufacturing, however, fire-rated glazing can now meet a range of design and performance needs, allowing daylight to penetrate deep into areas that previously had to incorporate concrete blocks or other dense, opaque materials to comply with fire codes.

For instance, transparent ceramic sheets such as FireLite® products can now be produced that look like ordinary window glass and are available in a range of make-ups, including with fire ratings up to three hours and options for energy efficiency and sound reduction.

When impact safety is required, ceramic glass can be laminated or filmed. Such products can meet the highest standard of impact safety for glass – Category II of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Safety Standard for Architectural Glazing Materials (U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 16, Part 1201). Glazing meeting this standard is an option for doors, sidelites and transoms in emergency rooms, busy corridors and lobbies where it may be impacted by fast moving people, gurneys or supply carts.

In areas with heat sensitive medical equipment and critical care units, as well as exit corridors and stairwells, glass firewalls may be more appropriate. Glazing in this category is tested to the same standards as solid walls, with fire-ratings up to two hours. Glass firewalls such as Pilkington Pyrostop® block the transfer of radiant and conductive heat, as well as flames and smoke. These materials can be installed from floor to ceiling, increasing visibility and daylight while providing effective compartmentation. Such materials typically also provide high impact resistance.

Fire-rated glass floors are another option for allowing daylight deep into buildings. Advanced glazed floor systems are impact-resistant and fire-rated for up to two hours and can be used as a durable, non-slip walking surface, if desired. Depending on the system, they are available for both interior and exterior applications.

Conclusion

With an average of 1,600 structure fires in hospital or hospice facilities each year, according to NFPA, preventative care should not only be applied to patients, but to the facilities that make their care possible. As in other occupancies, building compartmentation is critical, and healthcare facilities present several special challenges for which fire-rated glazing can help advance building designs.

Jeff Razwick is a vice president for Technical Glass Products (TGP), a supplier of specialty architectural glazing products and fire-rated glass and framing systems. He writes frequently about the design and specification of glazing systems for institutional and commercial buildings. www.fireglass.com, 800-426-0279


Notes

1 O’Connor, Daniel J., “NFPA Fire Protection Handbook,” 20th edition, Section 13, Chapter 8, Healthcare Occupancies, NFPA, 2008.

2 Choi, Joonho and Beltran, Liliana O., “Study of the Relationship between Patients’ Recovery and Indoor Daylight Environment of Patient Rooms in Healthcare Facilities,” Texas A&M University, 2004.

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