You never know what you’ll find when you turn the next corner. Nor can you guess what will bring you to some findings. Who would expect to find, in our travels, one of the hospitals most significantly contributing to the development our nation’s very excellent fire safety requirements?
We’ve spent the past week in Ramsey, Illinois, visiting with Janet and Mike. Well, mostly we’ve had an enjoyable time house-sitting as Mike spends much of every day visiting the hospital with Janet. She is recovering well from an apparently very successful surgery.
And we’ve driven to Effingham, Illinois, three times to visit with Janet. Each visit to the hospital has impressed me more and more. I spent twenty-five years working in hospital maintenance and safety in four hospitals and one very large multi-hospital system. I’ve never seen as clean or attractive a hospital as Saint Anthony’s Memorial Hospital. If the surgical, recovery, lab, and records departments are as well-run as housekeeping, maintenance, and food service are then this is the hospital for my medical care needs.
The hospital has an interesting and unfortunate history which almost certainly provides more fire safety for its patients, visitors, and staff. The original hospital, Saint Anthony’s, was built in the late 1800s and was lost to fire. Sixty years ago this April, the hospital suffered a devastating fire in which the hospital was a total loss and seventy four people lost their lives. The community pulled together magnificently and staged a campaign to fund the replacement hospital, named Saint Anthony’s Memorial Hospital in memory of the lives lost in the fire.
The National Fire Protection Agency has fire history lists for many categories including The NFPA’s deadliest hospital fires. The Saint Anthony’s fire is the second deadliest hospital fire on record. The top three are these:
> Cleveland Clinic (Ohio) May 15, 1929, 125 deaths
> St. Anthony Hospital (Illinois) April 4, 1949, 74 deaths
> Mercy Hospital, St. Elizabeth’s Ward (Iowa) January 7, 1950, 41 deaths
The cause of fire was never determined. The routes of the fire and smoke, from the basement to the third floor, were clearly defined as the wood-lined linen chutes and the open stairwells connecting all levels of the building. The old building was wood and brick with combustible acoustical upper wall and ceiling panels and with oil cloth on the lower portion of the walls. The building had no compartmentation to restrict the spread of smoke or fire throughout the entire building.
The open stairwells filled early and intensely with smoke and fire and were useless as exits. Three special emergency exits, installed as required by the Illinois Fire Marshall’s Office in 1940, were inaccessible to the building occupants. Smoke and fire raced, unchecked, throughout the corridors, blocking any access to the only available exits.
National hospital requirements for compartmentation, staff fire drills, automatic fire detection, alarm, notification and suppression systems all combine to provide much safer health care institutions. I don’t think there has been a large-loss hospital fire in the United States in many years. The last reported significant American hospital fire was in 1994 with four lives lost (all patients). Improvements to fire safety regulations for hospitals have since reduced or eliminated the contributing factors for three of those deaths.
I suspect Saint Anthony’s Memorial Hospital has been a leader in implementing and demonstrating fire-safe design for hospitals since its construction in 1954. And it appears Saint Anthony’s is providing a safe and clean hospital for the thousands of people it serves every year. My thanks go to the staff, management, and the Hospital Sisters Health Systems.
[NOTE: If you are interested in an exhaustive and well-done analysis and pictures of the Saint Anthony’s fire you can find Hospital fire losses, St Anthony’s here.]
revised 6/18/2009, added two pictures — jmc