Fire Safety for Fast-tracked Health Care Projects

In this article, Tetra Tech’s Simon Widjaja, technical manager with our High Performance Buildings Group in Melbourne, Australia, discusses the fire safety implications health care providers may face when repurposing existing spaces to increase bed capacity.

Many health care providers are seeking opportunities to increase bed capacity in their facilities to respond to a possible increase in demand in services associated with COVID-19. Providers we have spoken with have considered innovative approaches to temporarily achieving this aim, including:

  • Repurposing office, administration, and consulting areas to ward areas
  • Increasing the number of beds in existing ward areas
  • Constructing temporary or portable ward buildings or field hospital facilities
  • Providing on-site accommodation for staff in existing office spaces to minimize transit times and exposure of health care workers’ families to the virus

In Australia health care providers that are working through ideas to increase capacity should consider the Building Code of Australia (BCA) requirements in the context of fast-tracked temporary projects.

The BCA, especially in relation to fire protection services, does not consider the need to repurpose spaces quickly during a crisis, and adhering to its guidance could result in delays in implementing temporary accommodation. Furthermore, traditional regulatory frameworks and approval pathways have not been designed to adapt to meet the needs of the community to quickly bring these facilities online, in most cases within weeks due to the critical nature of the current situation.

The spirit of the BCA, however, can be met through the BCA performance-based pathway, which provides a framework for the stakeholder engagement process as outlined within the International Fire Safety Guidelines. The guidelines stipulate:

  • Key decision-makers must be involved in the process
  • Key risks (fire risks, evacuation, fire spread, fire brigade operation, etc.) must be identified and mitigated
  • Key management and building operation capabilities and limitations are understood by all stakeholders

Tetra Tech has been working with several key health care providers to facilitate stakeholder workshops to address the above points. We have found that the key to effective and actionable outcomes is collaboration from all stakeholders, including hospital medical staff, engineering teams, facility managers, certifiers/building surveyors, builders, fire engineers, fire brigade, peer reviewers, and government health department representatives to develop a solution that meets the performance requirements of the BCA, appropriate to the risks, short-term nature of the buildings, and benefit to the community that these facilities serve.

Our experience in these projects is that all stakeholders have the common objective to get these facilities online as quickly as possible, without providing onerous conditions, limitations, and regulation, while ensuring the fire safety risks have been appropriately considered and addressed.

We have found all stakeholders to be supportive in finding efficient, expedient, and suitably robust solutions to the challenges of fast-tracked, temporary health facilities to serve communities in times of crisis.

Simon Widjaja

Simon Widjaja

Simon Widjaja, technical manager with our High Performance Buildings Group in Melbourne, Australia, develops technical content to ensure Tetra Tech’s quality standards across the fire engineering group are met and provides significant health care audit and hospital work.

He has worked on a wide variety of projects, including government, commercial, residential, retail, industrial, and health. Simon has been heavily involved in the modeling of fire and smoke and occupant movement to achieve alternate building solutions.

Simon has worked on projects of all sizes and collaborates closely with the design team to achieve the required solutions.