30 Nov 2021

Auckland hospital projects delayed by fire concerns

8:04 am on 30 November 2021

Vital hospital building projects in Auckland are being delayed for months by questions over fire designs - and especially the safe evacuation of smoke-filled rooms.

A security guard worked at Middlemore Hospital's emergency department on Thursday last week while symptomatic with Covid-19.

Photo: LDR / Stephen Forbes

Stroke, rehabilitation and baby care units are all affected as well as a catheter lab and renal dialysis project.

Fire engineers have lacked clear design rules and guidelines for hospitals and care homes for years, and now Auckland Council, and Fire and Emergency (FENZ) are increasingly questioning the engineers' designs, causing delays to building consents.

Auckland engineer Simon Weaver said "building consents take quite a long time to process as it is. And then you can have a hospital job that might be in building consent for a year, while various experts argue different points of view".

'Ignored for such a long time'

Council lead fire engineer Ed Claridge told an industry webinar the extra questioning is justified.

"We haven't got people modelling realistic fires in a building with realistic performance," he said.

"We've got a foundation in this country of a problem and a disconnect with fire engineering designs, that means the evacuation and management of buildings has been practically ignored for such a long time, because it's been left to the evacuation regulations after the building has been built."

Many engineers believe the council and FENZ are going too far, beyond the Building Code in their demands.

But FENZ rejects that.

At the same webinar, FENZ's lead fire engineer Etienne Hermouet cited three recent smouldering fires in care homes - two in 2019, one last year - too small to set off sprinklers but that exposed residents and staff to smoke inhalation nonetheless.

The threat was real, Hermouet said.

"I have been asked a couple of times how many of those fires that we had, how much of a problem is it?" he told the engineers online.

"I will turn it around and ask you all, if you want to wait until somebody's died in a hospital [fire] before you accept there's a problem.

"I'd like to think that gives you some points to think about in your next design."

'A health sector-wide issue'

The webinar was meant to help fix the problem - but has not.

One engineer commented online: "This webinar has not done a thing to advance the current blockage."

Months on, Auckland region's district health boards have had to set up a group to tackle this, and are asking the Health Ministry for help.

At Counties Manukau DHB's Middlemore Hospital, delays have pushed back their new catheter and dialysis project more than six months, and raised costs.

FENZ had recently raised "fire design expectations to a standard many consider above code. As it stands there are situations whereby you can meet the Building Code but not FENZ requirements", the DHB told RNZ.

"Acquiring building consent in time for upcoming projects is a new risk being recognised by all projects especially around fire engineering design aspects. This is a health sector-wide issue," its committee minutes say.

Fire engineers are also frustrated.

"With the current situation of Covid, it's not good at all that we can't get these consents through and fire is holding them up," Simon Weaver said.

Engineers faced a lack of clear guidelines, but also a lack of real-world data about how evacuations worked, to feed into their designs, he said.

FENZ agreed clear guidance "is currently missing" from the documents that back up the Building Code.

Waitematā DHB put it this way: "We have experienced some uncertainty with receiving a clear direction from... FENZ and Auckland Council on requirements and have requested formal instructions."

FENZ told RNZ it supports the council in requiring changes to designs that are not robust enough.

It was bound, when it had technical "concerns that a design would not keep people safe", to tell councils but the scope of that advice was tightly defined by law and closely followed, manager of fire engineering Simon Davis said in a statement.

Veteran fire engineer Robert Peart did not believe FENZ or the council were going too far.

But he questioned council delays, for instance, over a Special Care Baby Unit design that he reviewed and approved recently.

"I was surprised to hear that several months after, they still hadn't resolved all the fire engineering issues," Peart said.

"I would have hoped I would have been able to resolve some of the issues had I been asked." But he was not asked.

Some councils were "ignoring" peer reviews generally, and not just of hospital designs, he said.

'Not unreasonable'

The industry must step up, into the rules vacuum left by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment under changes in 2017, by improving engineer training, Peart said.

Fire engineer Daryn Glasgow is doing a peer review at Starship children's hospital, of a fire compliance master-check that he said had taken almost a year longer than expected due to debate about methodolgies.

His solution was that engineers check with councils and FENZ earlier, like he does.

"If those conversations had happened earlier, then it would have been resolved earlier, no doubt," Glasgow said.

"So FENZ and council are asking questions of fire engineers to demonstrate, for example, whether they've appropriately incorporated the effect of smoke on staff that are assisting with evacuation of patients in their calculations.

"That is really challenging technically, but it's not unreasonable."

Auckland DHB said there were no safety concerns that prompted the Starship review, rather it was using it to check on what other projects it might do in future.

There is a virtual consensus on the need for specific fire safety design guidance for hospitals and care homes - though this could take many months to develop, and FENZ has warned engineers prescriptive rules would limit design flexibility.

The Health Ministry has not said if it is taking up a FENZ offer to develop this guidance.

Some industry players say it is up to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, to step in.

The ministry indicated to RNZ it is not in a hurry, saying it had signalled since the 2017 rule change that it would in due course review the C/VM2 fire rules.

"As part of this [we] will consider whether further fire safety guidance specific to hospital designs could be beneficial," it said.

MBIE said it had met Auckland Council to talk about building consent processing options. It remains unclear where that has got to.

Any solution to the delays will carry costs. As one fire engineer told the webinar: "Ultimately the cost [is] levied on hospitals, who aren't made of money. So over-conservativism is indirectly causing injury as well."

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