Web Exclusive: The necessity of fire sprinkler upgrades (CASE STUDY INCLUDED)

This exclusive article was submitted by SimplexGrinnell

Compliance with Nursing Home Sprinkler Law Achieved

In 2003, fire safety in nursing homes came to the forefront as a pressing state and national issue. That year, in two separate fatal events in Connecticut and Tennessee, 31 deaths occurred, starkly illustrating the need for improved fire safety systems in health care facilities catering to the elderly. Sixteen people perished in the Connecticut blaze, while 15 died in the Tennessee tragedy. Then, in January 2004, five people were killed in a retirement home fire in Maryville, Tennessee.

What was the common thread in all three fatal fires? None of the facilities were fully outfitted with a sprinkler system, and all had exemptions from laws mandating such safety equipment.

In the aftermath of the 2003 and 2004 fires, many states acted quickly to close loopholes in fire safety laws, mandating that virtually all nursing homes and assisted living facilities be retrofitted with fire protection equipment, including smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. Tennessee, Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas were among the states mandating sprinkler systems in nursing homes. (Note: Congress is also considering legislation to make sprinkler retrofits mandatory for every nursing home and similar health care facility that accepts federal Medicaid and Medicare payments.)

Families of some victims of the fires took consolation that some good came from their losses. Indeed, Charlene Walker, daughter of one of the victims of the Maryville fire, declared, “This is the good from a tragic situation” when Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen signed into law on June 17, 2004 a bill requiring sprinkler systems in assisted living facilities and residential homes for the elderly. Walker added that passage of the law meant her mother and the other victims of the Tennessee fires “did not die in vain.” Maryville Fire Chief Ed Mitchell predicted his state’s new law “will save thousands of lives in years to come.” (Note: The above quotes appeared in the June 17, 2004 edition of the Maryville Daily Times.)

The preponderance of evidence supports Mitchell’s contention that sprinkler systems will save lives. In the U.S., there has never been a fire with multiple fatalities in a building equipped with a working sprinkler system. A well-engineered sprinkler system helps protect life and property, and is an investment in the peace of mind of the families who place their loved ones in the care of a nursing facility.

But while state legislatures took action to support the safety of their most vulnerable citizens, nursing homes found themselves facing strict deadlines for compliance with the new laws. Many nursing homes turned to fire sprinkler experts to help them layout and install sprinkler systems that would not only bring their facilities into alignment with the new requirements, but also help protect the lives of those in their care.

One such case involved Tyson Manor, a Beverly Healthcare nursing home located in Montgomery, Alabama. A 30-year old, one-story facility constructed primarily of brick, Tyson Manor had been exempt from sprinkler requirements until Alabama adopted the more stringent law.

Tyson Manor was partially sprinklered, in spite of its exemption, but by the time the new law went into effect on June 28, 2004, Beverly Healthcare had already put a compliance plan in place. SimplexGrinnell was chosen by Beverly Healthcare’s architectural firm as a partner in the sprinkler project. The sprinkler upgrade called for integrating new equipment with the existing sprinkler system, upgrading water lines to comply with local fire codes, and completing some additional construction and excavation in order to install utility and backflow prevention equipment. In addition, the project required extensive planning and preparation to accommodate the needs of patients in the care of Tyson Manor.

As with any construction project, a sprinkler system retrofit is a disruption to the daily routine of an occupied building. Compliance was important to Tyson Manor, but the facility’s executives also expressed a high level of concern for the well being of their residents while work was underway.

Ray Wilson, Tyson Manor’s maintenance director, worked closely with SimplexGrinnell throughout the project, which began in March of 2004. The vendor’s knowledge of local and state fire codes, and extensive experience working on similar projects, had the team well prepared for the task ahead. “SimplexGrinnell stayed in close contact with the State of Alabama and the Montgomery Fire Department,” Wilson said, adding that the vendor’s knowledge played a key role in securing quick approval from the necessary authorities.

Work on the retrofit began in April 2004, and once under way, the team worked long days and even on weekends to keep the project moving forward and accommodate the needs of Tyson Manor’s staff and patients. The only unexpected challenge came when the team learned it would have to excavate “pits” to house backflow prevention equipment. In the end, the solution for Tyson Manor not only met code, but saved the facility money over typical backflow configurations. Best of all, in spite of the interruption, the team was quickly able to install the new equipment and put the project back on schedule.

The team’s planning and applications experience, in combination with the most advanced sprinkler technology available, resulted in a seamless integration of old and new systems. Simple innovations such as using a combination of steel and PVC piping saved money; use of different sprinkler head configurations ensured proper operation in rooms where medical equipment and room partitions might have compromised safety; and the ability to tie new equipment in with Tyson Manor’s existing equipment saved further financial resources as well as additional time.

Preparation and close coordination with on-site staff allowed Tyson Manor to schedule residents for time out of their rooms, including patients requiring special care and attention. During such periods, it was critical for the work to progress quickly. Delays that resulted in additional patient inconvenience might cause serious repercussions, adding unnecessary stress to both patients and staff. Fortunately, each room was complete and ready to be occupied before day’s end.

As the project wound down to its successful conclusion – 80 rooms now protected by state-of-the-art fire protection equipment – SimplexGrinnell again worked closely with Tyson Manor to see that the new system would receive the state’s seal of approval. “We passed state and local fire inspections, no problem,” Wilson said, adding that he appreciated the quality of the finished product and the fact that it respected Tyson Manor’s aesthetic integrity. “The quality of the work shows. It looks real good.”