Health care engineers, facilities managers and code enforcers are advised to use their professional judgement to ensure the intent of fire and life-safety standards is followed as auxiliary treatment areas and temporary field hospitals are forged in unconventional venues. However, the influential developer of many of those standards acknowledges that normally regulated compliance levels will likely not be achievable in ad hoc health care space, given the extraordinary circumstances COVID-19 has set in motion.
“The situation has made even the strongest supporters of these safety codes understand the need for temporary, alternative compliance options to support the new health care landscape,” states newly released guidance from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
In lieu of strict adherence, the standards development body suggests that equivalency clauses or risk-based approaches already incorporated into the commonly used NFPA standards can help designers and building officials identify and choose the best options for the fundamentals of fire prevention, detection, notification and egress. Recommendations are set out in two new documents, Maintaining Safe Health Care Facilities in Extraordinary Times and Temporary Compliance Options for Code Modifications, Alternate Care Sites, and Facilities Related to Health Care, which can be downloaded from the NFPA website.
The guidance was developed to address four scenarios that have been rapidly arising in the United States:
- Reconfiguration/repurposing of existing health care spaces.
- Modification of existing non-health care spaces (e.g., hotels/motels, convention centres, arenas) into spaces that house patient beds.
- Construction of tents or membrane structures in parking lots, fields or other open spaces.
- Inspection, testing and maintenance activities not being performed as normal due to both service providers’ concerns for their employees’ exposure and from decisions to limit access to health care facilities.
“At NFPA, we fully recognize that it will be impossible to modify or construct spaces in strict compliance with fire and life safety codes while getting ready to treat critically ill patients with the best possible care,” observes Robert Solomon, a fire protection engineer with NFPA. “At the same time, there are measures that can be taken to help keep people safe from fire in light of the current situation.”