Private Operating Mode Fire Alarm Systems in Healthcare

Fire alarm systems are crucial for safety in all types of buildings, including healthcare facilities. When you think of a fire alarm, you might think of loud horns, strobing lights, and other types of notifications throughout the building. However, what happens when the people inside your building cannot evacuate themselves? In these cases, your healthcare facility may need private operating mode fire alarms instead of the traditional, building-wide alarm devices.

Do Fire Alarm Systems in Healthcare Facilities Need to Notify Everyone in the Building?

Generally speaking, most buildings need visual and audible alarm devices at regular intervals as part of life safety systems. This helps ensure that everyone in the building can be notified of an emergency and begin evacuation procedures or other emergency actions. The idea is to have alarms that are unmistakable so everyone can take action for their own safety. 

However, in many healthcare facilities, patients may not be able to take these actions themselves. When this is the case, you may need to install private mode fire alarms for your medical facility. Private operating mode basically means that not every person in the building gets notification of the emergency. Instead, the system alerts key personnel that are responsible for beginning emergency actions like evacuation. 

fire alarm systems pull down alarm on wall
Fire alarm systems help people inside buildings take emergency action in case of fire. In healthcare settings, this may mean using private mode so personnel can assist patients with evacuation procedures.

Some healthcare buildings that may benefit from private mode fire alarms include:

  • Hospitals
  • Emergency rooms
  • Surgery centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Psychiatric hospitals

Private Mode Fire Alarm Systems When Alarms Could Impact Patient Care

Of course, not every facility can simply trade out their public mode fire alarms for private mode. This can be a safety hazard for many buildings. So, it’s important to know the rules behind when private operating mode may be used according to fire codes. This may depend on your authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), but most adopt guidelines set forth by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). The NFPA offers specific direction on when healthcare facilities should use private mode fire alarms. This guidance is essentially to consider whether audible and visual alarms could adversely affect patient care. 

Deciding Between Public and Private Mode Fire Alarm Systems

With this in mind, you might ask yourself whether your healthcare facility should use public or private mode for your fire alarm systems. Once again, this will depend on recommendations and codes from the AHJ. However, there are a few questions to ask yourself to determine whether to use private or public mode alarms:

  • Would an alarm negatively affect patient care?
  • Are occupants bed-ridden or otherwise unable to take emergency actions themselves?
  • Would taking emergency actions on their own harm building occupants?
  • Can personnel initiate emergency actions during a fire or other life safety event?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then in most cases you may be able to use private operating mode instead of public. 

How Does Private Operating Mode Work?

We mentioned briefly that private operating mode fire alarm systems alert people responsible for initiating emergency action. However, you might wonder what this looks like in practice. There are actually several ways to go about a private mode system. Your fire protection specialist can help design a custom system that fits your facility’s needs.

Audio Visual Notifications

Generally speaking, most private operating mode fire alarms will have a visual notification system in staff areas that uses text to alert them of a fire. These should state the nature of the emergency as well as where it is. For instance, the system might read “smoke detected, 5th floor, east wing.” These alarms help healthcare staff take necessary action to keep patients and occupants safe. 

Also, in many cases, there still needs to be an audible alarm in staff areas. Usually the same rules apply as far as sound range: 10 decibels above ambient noise or 5 decibels above the maximum 60 second noise. 

Options for Mass Notification for Staff

In addition to meeting minimum requirements for audible and visual alarms, you may also decide to implement mass notifications for staff members as part of your fire safety systems. Many healthcare facilities have integrated fire alarms with nurse call systems, mass notification systems, and intercoms. 

For example, you may want the fire system to automatically create an alert to medical staff through portable nurse call system technologies. Other hospitals choose an automatic alert over the intercom system through coded messages or chimes. One common coded message for a fire is “code red,” which everyone can hear, but only those “in-the-know” understand as a fire alarm. 

There are several ways to customize your healthcare fire detection system to suit your facility’s needs. Therefore, it’s important to work with fire safety professionals to create a system that addresses the unique needs of your facility.

Some Areas May Need Public Mode and others Private Mode for Healthcare Fire Alarm Systems

Also, in many facilities your fire alarms may be in public mode for some floors, zones, or areas, while you may use private operating mode for others. For example, in a hospital setting, you may have several different alarms for different units. You might use public mode fire alarms in common areas like cafeterias, gift shops, and waiting rooms, but use private mode for intensive care units, operating theaters, and hospital nurseries. Once again, remember to ask yourself whether an alarm might harm patient care and if patients can safely take emergency actions themselves. The answers may be different for different areas of your facility. The fire alarm should meet these varying needs to help keep everyone safe during an emergency. 

Why Private Mode Alarms are Essential for Healthcare Life Safety Systems

There are several reasons why the NFPA offers the alternative of a private mode fire system. While public mode fire alarms are meant to help protect life safety, some vulnerable occupants could be negatively affected. For example, for bed-ridden patients who cannot evacuate themselves, alarms can be unnecessarily distressing. Patients with limited mobility may try to evacuate if they notice the alarm and harm themselves in the process. Also, let’s not forget that newborns may suffer harm to their hearing and eyesight from loud alarms with strobing lights, as they are a particularly vulnerable population. Private mode aims to help protect patients like these who might not benefit from the use of fire alarm devices. 

Fire & Life Safety Experts Since 1916 at Wilson Fire Equipment

When you need fire, life safety, or security systems, our experts at Wilson Fire Equipment are here to help. We’ve been serving the Greater Houston area since 1916 to provide high quality systems designed to keep people and facilities safe. Whether you need new systems for fires, life safety, or security or need expert security systems monitoring in Houston, our team is here to help you protect people and property for your facility. Contact us today at (713) 896-4747 to talk to one of our specialists about your system needs!