ARCHITECTURE AND ELOQUENCE
There has been a significant change in how health care is managed over the last 5-10 years. Hospitals have evolved from handling emergency and inpatient care to a more mixed-use health care campus, focused on wellness and outpatient services in addition to their core service offerings. Today, patients might visit a health care campus for a weekly physical therapy appointment, an MRI, or even to take a pre-op course designed to instruct future patients on aftercare requirements. The focus of the health care campus has shifted to be a comprehensive hub that provides a variety of services.
As one could imagine, this shift has changed the way design and engineering professionals configure and equip health care campuses. Fire and life safety design might not seem as fascinating as engineering a parking structure, but it’s vital to the one thing that is always the top priority in a health care setting—safety.
Up until the last decade, fire and life safety engineering services within a health care setting were primarily concerned with adhering to various federal, state and local codes, as well as compliance agencies. Now, fire and life safety engineers also have to consider the vast health care campus that provides an assortment of services, each with its own set of regulations. Code and compliance requirements vary for each area of the campus. It is essential that the campus is interconnected for patient and employee ease in maneuvering.
This transition to a mixed-use health care campus requires fire, life and safety engineers to develop creative solutions to address sections of the facility differently based on whether it is an outpatient service, administrative floor, education classroom, or emergency services. Each use-case requires different fire, life and safety solutions.
The role of fire and life safety engineers is a delicate dance between maintaining the aesthetic and utility of a structure, with modifying the design to safeguard against potential hazards. In a mixed-use health care setting, it is important to develop solutions and educate the design team without diminishing the intent and spirit of the campus. A good fire and life safety engineer will take a consultative role to acknowledge and work within each discipline associated with a campus.
Fire Protection Architecture
When developing solutions to address the complex nature of health care campuses, fire and life safety engineers combine the following professional disciplines to effectively manage mixed-use health projects: fire protection, fire protection engineering, architecture, and politics. Knowing fire and human behavior provides the necessary foundation for fire and life safety engineers to compartmentalize and suppress. Fire protection provides a high-level view of what can be expected during a fire and how to properly prepare staff with evacuation tools and fire prevention programs.
Fire protection engineering couples both science and engineering principles to protect people and environments from the destructive effects of fire and smoke. In a medical campus, where some occupants are mostly incapable of self-preservation, the planning and coordination of smoke compartments is vital to ensuring patient safety. In addition to designing the appropriate smoke barriers to limit the size of the compartments the supporting fire protection, mechanical and egress systems must also be considered.
When smoke control systems are required, such as in atrium spaces, the systems are a significant part of health care facilities’ fire safety considerations. The systems are designed to allow the appropriate time for hospital staff to coordinate patient evacuation, without risking the health and safety of patients and staff. Smoke management is often one of the more complicated aspects of fire and life safety engineering, and even more so when handling a health campus with varied service offerings. Coordinating mechanical and electrical controls is essential to ensure the systems operate properly to achieve the life safety goals of the protected spaces.
Health care campus design, layout, space planning and construction requires the consultative role of a professional fire and life safety engineer to keep with the overall vision of the project, while addressing proper safety and regulatory concerns. Working within the planned architecture and use of the spaces, the engineer provides guidance and design of the many interrelated fire protection and life safety systems to ensure that the often-challenging code requirement of those systems are satisfied.
As an example, it is often necessary to separate the different uses of a space with fire resistive rated construction serving as either fire or smoke barriers. While building a wall is not a challenging design task, coordinating the location of the required walls while providing open and inviting access to all of the adjacent spaces requires the experience and creative thinking that a fire and life safety engineer can provide.
Health care facilities are subject to the scrutiny of multiple entities, including local, state, federal and private accreditation authorities. These entities rarely, if ever, operate or enforce the same edition or have the same interpretation of the applicable codes and standards. The fire and life safety professional brings clarity to the code application process.
Architecture and eloquence are mixed arts, whose end is sometimes beauty and sometimes use. Due to the nature of the mixed-use health care campus, it is critical for the fire and life safety engineers to carry out the vision of stakeholders while allowing the environments to operate safely without an interruption in care and service.