Zoned Fire Alarm System Cures Hospital’s Detection Disruptions

The new St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center located in Twin Falls, Idaho, has installed a state-of-the art fire detection system that integrates with other security and life safety systems to minimize disruptions to unaffected areas.

When the new St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center opened in 2011, it came complete with a top-line fire detection system that had been the focus of intense planning — and not just from engineers and designers.

“They really are committed to providing an incredible patient environment and experience in the hospital,” explains Christopher Curtis, the CH2M HILL engineer who designed the Gamewell-FCI system for the Twin Falls, Idaho, hospital. “So we met continuously with doctors, nurses, administrators and others — they had a lot of input into the process. Really, they wanted minimal disruption, and that’s one of the determining factors why the design team went with a defend-in-place strategy.”

From design to specific technology choices, every piece of the St. Luke’s system was chosen to allow patients to have a stress-free environment and to allow doctors, nurses and others to continue their work, even if there were an emergency a few hallways down.

It’s a big change for the 95-year-old hospital, which cut no corners when leaving old, leased buildings and moving into the newly constructed medical center — a 732,000-square-foot, three-story complex with a four-story tower. St. Luke’s Magic Valley holds 184 beds, a dozen operating suites, a cancer center, medical plaza, in-house rehabilitation unit, and more, with up to 1,400 people occupying it on any given day.

Smoke Zones Reduce Staff, Patient Panic

In the old buildings, when an alarm was pulled or smoke was detected in one area, a general alarm would ring throughout, unnecessarily disrupting patient recovery and physicians’ work. A primary goal was changing that formula in the new building, says Todd Rothfuss, plant manager at St. Luke’s Magic Valley.

“If you are a patient in the facility and there is nothing going on in your area, yet the horns and strobes are going, you have no choice but to kind of panic. We didn’t want to disrupt patient care when we had an alarm going off. We just wanted to concentrate on the area that was affected,” says Rothfuss.

The answer, says Curtis, was to design a system based on smoke zones. A fire alarm system comprising 52 nodes, broken down into smoke zones and controlled by a high-speed network of 22 E3 Series fire alarm panels, covers the entire facility.

A selective notification approach is designed into the system as well. Any problem within a smoke zone only fires off notification within that zone. A general, page-all call is initiated over the paging network to alert the rest of hospital staff that there’s an event. But only that smoke zone is impacted, as operations, surgeries, inpatient care and other departments all proceed in other zones.

“From an organizational standpoint and a patient standpoint, the caregivers do not change anything in the day-to-day operations, even when across the hall they have alarms going off,” says Rothfuss.

This zoned approach also meets demands of the quarterly testing that must be done on every alarm in the hospital. Rather than disrupt the entire hospital, different zones and different sections can be tested periodically.

Hospitals require a lot of continual certification, re-certification, testing and training on the system, notes Curtis.

“They have to meet biannual certifications for Joint Health Commission requirements,” he says. “One of the factors on that is the ability to test the system comprehensively and then have a lot of background data to provide to the certification authorities.”

Minimizing disruption even further, a smoke detector alerting in a patient’s room will first signal a problem at the nurse’s station, rather than in the entire smoke zone. The nurse will investigate, and if a true smoke or fire emergency exists, will pull an alarm for that zone to elicit a response from key hospital personnel and summon local first responders en route to the hospital.

The system’s audible alarms are chimes sent through speakers. Having speakers gives St. Luke’s the ability to easily add recorded, and even live, voice alerts. The audibility of the system, mixed with the E3 Series inherent survivability and total supervision of components allows it to quickly evolve to serve as an emergency communications system for mass notification in the future.   

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