Russian hospital fires underscore importance of not losing sight of fire safety during pandemic

A fire at a hospital in St. Petersburg, Russia, today killed five patients being treated for COVID-19. (Reuters)

Six people are dead after two fires in just three days torched hospitals treating COVID-19 patients in Russia. The incidents underscore the importance of not losing sight of fire safety, even during unprecedented circumstances such as the global coronavirus pandemic.

The first fire occurred in Moscow Saturday, killing one patient and forcing the evacuation of 200 others. The second occurred today in St. Petersburg, killing five patients and forcing the evacuation of 150 others. Both blazes appear to have been started by faulty ventilators, and Russia has announced it is launching a criminal investigation into the incidents. "The ventilators are working to their limits. Preliminary indications are that it was overloaded and caught fire, and that was the cause [of today's fire]," a hospital source said, according to BBC News. Media reports on the first fire suggested a similar cause. The news comes less than a week after Reuters published an article saying Russia's stock of ventilators was "plentiful," but the devices are "old and sometimes broken."

Across the globe, health care facilities have been strained by the coronavirus pandemic. They've been forced to rapidly convert areas never intended for patient care at all into makeshift intensive care units, which require complicated assortments of equipment and building systems working in conjunction with one another. At the same time, temporary hospitals have been established in areas like city parks, convention centers, hotels, and sports arenas, raising similar challenges.

With these actions has come some level of risk associated with the need to forgo compliance with parts of established codes like NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, and NFPA 99, Health Care Facilities Code, in order to get things built quickly. It's unclear what, if any, code compliance relaxations had been put in place ahead of the two Russia fires, but the incidents still serve as a warning to all jurisdictions that certain aspects of codes can't be ignored, even during the COVID-19 crisis. 

NFPA 99, for example, includes provisions that could have addressed issues like the ones suspected of sparking the Russia fires. "The code includes general safety information on electrical equipment that, when combined with manufacturing standards, should address things like this," says Jon Hart, an engineering technical services lead at NFPA.

In the United States, many repurposed and newly constructed health care facilities established in recent months to meet the demand in patients sickened with coronavirus have still adhered to parts of NFPA codes deemed most necessary—such as requirements for fire alarms, electrical safety, and medical gas and vacuum systems—while not always adhering to parts of the code deemed less necessary—like requirements for hallway width and occupant load. A new article in the May/June issue of NFPA Journal examines how some jurisdictions are striking this delicate balance. 

"Everybody's concerned, but we have to play with the hand that's been dealt," Robert Solomon, director of the Building and Life Safety Division at NFPA, says in the article. "You can still make these facilities safe, to a degree, without adhering to every bell and whistle in the codes and standards—at least on a temporary basis."

NFPA released a white paper and a fact sheet in early April to help facility managers, designers, and AHJs navigate the situation. Both documents indicate, for instance, that portions of NFPA codes and standards can still be used to enhance safety at health care facilities without those facilities meeting the codes in their entirety.

Unfortunately, the Moscow and St. Petersburg blazes—as well as a fire in a nursing home that killed 11 people in the tiny Russian town of Krasnogorsk yesterday—build on the country's poor record of fire safety in hospitals and nursing homes. In general, many countries outside of the US lack the development, use, and enforcement of codes and standards necessary to protect patients and health care workers from fires. A December article from NFPA Journal explored the fire problem in international hospitals. 

"Hospitals in low- and middle-income countries often lack strict building codes, certification processes, and regulatory oversight," Robyn Gershon, an occupational and environmental health and safety researcher at New York University's College of Global Public Health, says in the article. "Everything from poor construction to a lack of emergency preparedness within the hospitals can lead to adverse outcomes in staff, visitors, and the most vulnerable population—patients—during fires or other emergencies."

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Angelo Verzoni
Associate Editor, NFPA Journal

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