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Fire Safety Improvements Ordered for New Wing of Downey Hospital

September 27, 1987|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — Safety deficiencies in the new two-story wing of Downey Community Hospital could delay evacuation of patients and staff in a major fire, a city official said.

The hospital has been using the 36-bed wing since June on a temporary clearance from the Downey fire marshal, but it must build a new fire stairway and make other safety improvements to satisfy state law, Downey Fire Inspector Dennis Lockard said last week.

The safety problems would be critical only "in a large-scale emergency, total evacuation of the hospital," Lockard said. "It would take longer to evacuate."

The most important correction needed is installation of an outside stairway on the new wing, said Lee Hopper, the hospital's chief administrative officer. The list also includes a new first-floor exit and a new stairwell leading out of a conference room in the main part of the hospital because the new wing blocked another fire stairway.

Cost Set at $175,000

Plans for the improvements are still being made, but Hopper estimated that they will cost $175,000.

Hopper did not know when the work will be completed. "As soon as we get the drawings, we'll contract it and have it done," he said.

The new wing is part of a $16-million expansion that includes a state-of-the-art heart center.

The second floor of the wing houses an observation ward, hospital spokeswoman Ellen Whitehead said. When completed, the first floor will contain the physical therapy and cardiovascular services departments. The hospital library, the purchasing department and other offices are in the basement.

Potential Trap

The safety problems arose because the hospital had planned to evacuate patients from the second floor of the new wing through a nearby stairway in the main hospital building. But Fire Inspector Lockard concluded that patients trying to reach that stairway could be trapped by heavy smoke or fire in the hall.

The hospital could have solved this problem by installing fire doors, but chose instead to spend more money and build a stairwell on the new wing to accommodate future expansion, Hopper said. The hospital foresees adding two more floors to the wing.

"We're doing things even better than the Fire Department asked for," Hopper said.

The stairway in the main hospital area will be used as a fire escape until the new stairway is built for the wing, Lockard said. Meanwhile, he said, occupancy of the conference room has been cut back.

The fire safety improvements are required to meet strict state standards for health-care facilities. The Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the state fire marshal's office and the state architect's office must inspect and approve all hospital plans and construction.

But it is up to the local fire inspector to determine whether the building meets both state fire safety requirements and local standards, which can be even more stringent. If the building passes, the local fire inspector issues a fire clearance.

Downey Fire Marshal William Sumner said his department first notified the hospital of fire safety deficiencies in the new wing after the hospital requested a "courtesy plan check" of early architectural drawings in February, 1985.

When Lockard inspected the building in June, he discovered the violations.

"The architect missed putting (corrections) in the plans, and the plan-checker with the state missed finding them," he said. "We just happened to be well versed in finding them . . . fortunately for the patients."

Sumner said the Fire Department was surprised in June to find the same deficiencies noted in the 1985 plan check.

"We only assume that those things that we brought up are going to be taken care of," he said. "We're not building inspectors. It's like ordering a red car, and then when it's delivered it's blue, because you aren't involved in the construction of the vehicle."

Deputy State Fire Marshal Mike Novotny said state inspectors were awaiting plans on improvements to the wing but would not comment on the safety deficiencies.

Hopper, the hospital administrator, said a lack of communication between state and local fire officials and differences between state and local safety requirements contributed to the problem.

Sumner, however, said that the changes were required by state standards and that no local requirements were involved.

Because of the problems with the new wing, the hospital asked the city for an early inspection of the heart center, which has an operating room for open-heart surgery and two laboratories but no beds for patients, officials said.

The Fire Department required the hospital to install a pair of solid fire doors along one corridor, but that was the only significant deficiency in the heart center, Lockard said. The doors were installed, and the city gave the center fire clearance this month, Sumner said.

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