Archives For hospital fire

On December 8, 1961, a 3 alarm fire at the Hartford Hospital left 16 dead (1 doctor, 1 nurse, 2 staff, 5 visitors, 7 patients).  The investigation resulted in many healthcare occupancy code changes.  These changes effected fire doors, patient rooms/compartmentation, linen/rubbish chutes, fire drills, and staff training.

Hartford Hospital now meets and in many areas exceeds the Connecticut Fire Code, the requirements of The Joint Commission, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services requirements, according to Mike Garrahy, Hartford Hospital’s current fire marshal. “It’s still fresh in our minds up here,” Garrahy adds. “We make sure to go through it with every employee. It’s part of out new employee orientation.” (from NFPA Journal Jan./Feb. 2009)



At the ICC Public Comment Hearings, in Atlantic City (Sept. 29-Oct. 10), there will be proposals brought forward that could allow and promote a decreased level of fire/life safety in healthcare facilities.  Stand with us, against these changes and proposals. For more information contact,


The National Fire Protection Association’s study, U.S. Experience With Sprinklers, shows that fire sprinkler systems are only effective about 90% of the time. By reviewing fire loss data, examining investigative fire reports, and researching fire and building history, the National Fire Protection Association was able to catalogue all the reasons that fire sprinklers fail.  The majority of fire sprinkler failures fall into one of these four categories:

  1. Failure to maintain operational status of the system.
  2.  Failure to assure adequacy of system and/or the complete coverage of the current hazard.
  3.  Defects affecting, but not involving, the sprinkler system.
  4.  Inadequate performance by the sprinkler system itself.

Failure to maintain operational status of the system. It goes without saying, an adequate water supply is an essential and critical part of any sprinkler system.  Yet, this is the primary cause of fire sprinkler failure.  The water supply valve could be shut-down for any variety of reasons, including routine maintenance, building construction/demolition, system impairment, or improper valve installation.  With any portion of the sprinkler system out of service (for any length of time), the smallest fire will quickly grow beyond the sprinkler systems capabilities.

Failure to assure adequacy of the system or complete and accurate coverage of the current hazard. Every sprinkler system is designed to protect a certain type of hazard based on a buildings proposed use.  Over time the use of the facility, or certain areas of, may change, or the hazard may increase due to the types of material being used or stored.  A sprinkler system designed for an ordinary hazard will quickly be overcome and disabled against a fire involving high hazard contents.

Defects affecting, but not involving, the sprinkler system. These include changes to the water distribution system, faulty building construction, and lack of compartmentation.  R. Thomas Long, Jr., P.E. in his article for Fire Protection Engineering states,

 Compartmentation of hazards through the use of fire barriers and walls is a fire protection strategy in itself, but physical separations can play a role in the effectiveness of the sprinkler system.  High hazard areas in buildings can be segregated by fire-resistance-rated construction.  The concept is to contain the fire in the compartment and prevent spread outward…Vigilance is necessary in maintaining passive fire protection compartmentation, not only to prevent the spread of fire, but to also improve the effectiveness of the sprinkler system in the area of fire involvement.

Inadequate performance by the sprinkler system itself.  This is the most rare cause of fire sprinkler system failure, a defect in the system itself, component damage, or failure to properly activate.  These incidents most commonly occur as a consequence of a fire.  Overall sprinkler system components are extremely reliable.

With a fire sprinkler success rate of only 90%, there is only one solution for protecting those that “are not capable of self preservation”, balanced fire protection. We need fire sprinkler systems, we need fire rated wall and corridor assemblies, and we must maintain smoke barriers.  It is only in this balanced approach to fire protection that makes survivability in fire emergencies possible.

Reviewing 9 of the most deadly hospital fires, reveals several recurring factors, including:cleveland_clinic

  • heavy fuel load
  • lack of compartmentation (to limit fire and smoke spread)
  • lack of fire sprinkler protection
  • no early warning system (fire alarm)
  1. Cleveland Clinic (1929) – 120 killed

More than 120 people lost their lives when flammable items (nitrocellulose x-ray film, in this case) was stored to close to a heat source. Contributing factors to these deaths included:

  • improper storage of flammables – stored too closely to other types of flammables and a heat source
  • lack of fire sprinkler protection – not required at the time, potentially could have held the fire in check
  • unprotected openings between floors – allowed the fire, heat, smoke, and toxic gases to travel up and through several levels

2.  Mercy Hospital (1950) – 41 killed

When a patient in the St. Elizabeth’s Women’s Psychopathic Building at Mercy Hospital lit her curtains on fire, 40 elderly women were killed and one attendant.  Contributing factors to these deaths included:

  • incendiary/arson fire – fire intentionally set
  • barred windows – hindered fire department rescue efforts
  • flammable wall coverings – combustible fiberboard was used for the corridor ceilings

3.  St. Anthony Hospital (1949) – 74 killed

Seventy-four lives were claimed when a fire, which started in a laundry chute, quickly spread throughout the facility.  Contributing factors to these deaths included:

  • combustible laundry chute construction
  • lack of fire alarm or fire sprinkler systems
  • open corridors and stairs
  • lack of smoke barriers

4.  Hartford Hospital (1961) – 16 killedhartford_hospital_patient

A fire starting in a trash chute spread through the facility igniting the flammable interior finishes resulting in 16 deaths.  Contributing factors to these deaths included:

  • flammable/combustible interior finishes – large amounts of plastics, linoleum, and fabrics throughout
  • dead-end corridors – occupants had to travel through fire/smoke to escape
  • partial fire sprinkler protection – fire sprinklers present on only 3 floors
  • undivided, concealed spaces – spaces above ceiling allowed the rapid and uninhibited travel of smoke
  • unprotected openings – smoke door was held open allowing smoke and fire to fill up an entire floor


5.  Missouri Facility (1974) – 8 killed

Eight lives were lost when a fire broke out in this Missouri facility, with a heavy fuel load, and staff that was not adequately trained. Contributing factors to these deaths included:

  • heavy fuel load – patient rooms contained large amounts of foam, mattresses, couches, and bedding
  • improperly functioning fire alarm system – fire alarm alerted staff in the halls, but did not alert the fire department
  • partial fire sprinkler protection – in laundry and trash rooms only
  • unprotected openings – staff left the doors to patient rooms in the open position

6.  Michigan Hospice (1985) – 8 killedhartfor_hospital

When a fire started from a patients recliner and began to spread, 8 lives were lost.  Contributin factors to these deaths included:

  • heavy fuel load – patients were allowed to bring items from home
  • unprotected openings – fire and smoke spread through the ventilation systems and stairwells, smoke doors were left open

7.  California Hospital (1985) – 5 killed

A patient smoking while trying to shut down his oxygen supply ignited a fire that quickly spread, taking 5 lives.  Contributing factors to these deaths included:

  • careless smoking
  • unprotected opening – patients door was left open, permitting spread of fire

8.  New York Hospital (1993) – 3 killed

A medical equipment malfunction contributed to the death of 3 patients.  Two of the patients were in the room of origin, and the third was two rooms down.  His door had not been properly shut, as had all the other patient rooms.  Contributing factors to low mortality rate:

  • fire alarm system was in place
  • fire sprinkler protected corridors
  • trained staff
  • auto closing doors and rated walls – limited fire and smoke spread

9.  Virginia Hospital (1994) – 6 killed

This fire started in a patients bedding, and was fed from an open oxygen line, until the oxygen zone was shut off.  Contributing factors to these deaths included:

  • unprotected openings – door to the room was left open
  • lack of fire alarm detection devices – no smoke alarms in the patient rooms
  • lack of fire sprinklers and working fire department connection
  • undivided concealed spaces – spaces above ceiling permitted smoke movement and seep down

balanced_fire_protectionAs we can see from this short history these fires spread and took lives, not due to one system operating or malfunctioning but, due to multiple systems that are inteded to work together and create redundancy not being in place.  Hospitals are supposed to be a place of safety, refuge, and healing.  It is only when the facility takes a balanced approach to life safety that your loved one remains truly safe, and real healing can take place.





For more information on the above mentioned fires download the report, “Major Hospital Fires” from the National Fire Protection Association.