Two Alexandria hospitals failed unannounced fire drills conducted in late August by the city's fire marshal as part of a survey of fire safety in several Virginia hospitals.
Jefferson Memorial Hospital and Alexandria Hospital, which failed the tests, are among 96 hospitals across the state that have partial sprinkler systems or lack them altogether. Both hospitals had insufficient personnel to evacuate the number of patients involved in the fire drills, according to Michael Conner Sr., Alexandria's chief fire marshal.
The study was ordered by the State Board of Housing and Community Development in the wake of last year's fire at Norfolk's Hillhaven Rehabilitation and Convalescent Center, where 12 elderly patients died. The board, which writes state building codes and regulations, will report to the General Assembly on hospital fire safety.
The Alexandria hospitals, along with two others, one in Newport News and another in Martinsville, were randomly selected for a study to see how quickly hospitals without sprinkler systems could evacuate their patients in an emergency, Conner said.
The Virginia Hospital Association has said that the average staffing level in the state is two staff members per patient, enough to handle patient evacuation in case of fire. The cost of installing sprinklers would be prohibitive, hospital officials have said.
Fire officals say, however, that the early morning surprise drills found too few staff members to evacuate patients quickly.
Larry Sartoris, an official with the Virginia Hospital Association, said he had not seen the fire marshal's report, but said that the organization opposes an across-the-board policy of installing sprinklers.
"Cost is one concern," he said. "The issue comes down to whether it's necessary to add the extra level of protection, and whether it provides the extra benefit," he said. "My belief is that the hospitals do generally have high staffing levels and do conduct evacuations properly."
Conner said fire marshals considered the problems found at the four hospitals to be typical of problems at hospitals around the state.
"I suspect if we had gone into any one of the others we would have found similar conditions," he said.
Conner said that the main problem at each of the four hospitals tested was that the staff responded too slowly. Conner said he had arranged to meet next month with officials from both Alexandria hospitals as well as various facilities for the elderly in northern Virginia to discuss the findings of the drills.
"I view this as an opportunity that everyone can learn something from, rather than waiting for a tragedy to happen," he said.
The fire marshals have recommended that hospitals increase the frequency of fire drills and install sprinklers or other fire suppression systems. Conner said there were "no gross areas of negligence" at the four hospitals.
Staffing levels, Conner said, are particularly critical for evacuation from a nursing home or hospital, where patients are not ambulatory, and become even more critical if there are no sprinklers to contain a blaze.
As a result of public hearings and testimony conducted this summer by the state Department of Housing and Community Development in Richmond, nursing homes in the state will be required to install sprinklers by Jan. 1, 1993.