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    Fire forces hospital evacuation

    Smoke from a small fire traced to a short circuit in machinery delays surgeries

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


    DUNEDIN -- Registered nurse Valerie Kidd smelled smoke at Mease Dunedin Hospital on Monday morning.

    She traced the odor to a film-processing room in the cardiac catheterization lab. She opened the door and saw sparks hopping from a film-processing machine.

    She closed the door, trapping the smoke in the room. Another staff member called 911.

    "In the lab, it was very smoky," Kidd said later.

    Within minutes, about 60 emergency workers from seven agencies were racing to the facility. Seventeen emergency vehicles screamed into the hospital parking lot.

    The emergency room, across the hall from the fire, was especially busy Monday morning, with about 14 patients seeking treatment.

    Staff members evacuated 11 non-critical patients to another area of the hospital, where they were monitored as they waited. Three patients in critical condition were kept in the ER, accompanied by nurses and emergency workers trained in advanced life support.

    One of the 11 people evacuated had come to the ER for surgery; that patient was transported to Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor and taken to the operating room, hospital officials said.

    About 25 others seeking outpatient treatment also were moved to another part of the hospital, officials said.

    A Pinellas County Hazardous Materials Unit was summoned to the hospital at 601 Main St. because of the potential for dangerous chemicals poisoning the air. Doctors in the second-floor surgery suites above the fire delayed their operations.

    "Until you know what's going on, there's a little bit of trepidation there," said James A. Pfeiffer, president and chief operating officer of Morton Plant Mease Health Care.

    Despite the potential for chaos, the incident was -- in a literal and figurative sense -- more smoke than fire.

    The patients stayed calm, staff members acted with cool heads and an automatic fire-extinguishing system kicked in and suffocated the small blaze.

    The only chemical to burn into the air was harmless plastic, and the scene was declared safe within 90 minutes, said Kristy Patterson, spokeswoman for the Palm Harbor Fire Department.

    "The patients were very calm and very cooperative," said Nancy Hopkins, the nurse manager in the ER, who just last week went through hazardous-materials training. None of the patients suffered injuries or increased ailments because of the evacuation or a delay in treatment, according to hospital officials.

    A few staff members were evaluated for possible smoke inhalation, but none was injured.

    Some emergency room patients were agitated because wait times in the already busy room swelled about two hours.

    "No one wants to wait," said Leigh Wallace, the hospital spokeswoman.

    The fire started at about 9 a.m. Investigators later determined that a short in the film processing machine caused the fire, said Inspector Dennis Caudle of the Dunedin Fire Department.

    The machine processes film that is taken of patients' hearts in search of blockages.

    The fire was squelched by a system that discharges an odorless, colorless gas that snuffs out flame-fueling oxygen and keeps the fire from spreading.

    Hospital and fire officials praised the reaction of the nursing staff. Although a fire alarm was blaring, staff members told patients that fire drills were common and calmly evacuated them.

    "The employees acted quickly and responded the way they should have," Patterson said.

    Staff members have operating procedures for such incidents, which they practice often, Wallace said. Staff members are trained in how to handle situations ranging from fires to abductions. "We constantly drill our employees," Wallace said. "We prepare for any type of incident that may occur."

    - Staff writer Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or tisch@sptimes.com.

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