Center evacuates patients and staff

Pungent smell brings fire department visit

It was a busy Friday in September at the Farmington Surgery Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Patients were recovering from anesthesia. One was undergoing a procedure in the OR and had open wounds. Suddenly a sulphuric smell permeated one section of the PACU area.

"Our patients were slightly nauseated," says Chris Jackson, RN, BSN, nurse manager. Staff members' eyes and throats started to feel a burning sensation.

Jackson called the hospital's Environment of Care Center, and staff there called the fire department. When the firefighters arrived, they couldn't immediately identify the source of the smell, but they recognized the air quality was poor in some areas. They pulled the alarm to start an evacuation of the Medical Arts and Research Building, where the center is located.

The patients who had undergone anesthesia were in various stages of recovery, Jackson says. "We explained to fire department that it's not as easy to evacuate a surgery center where people are recovering or just waking up," she says. "It's not just as easy as just moving them out." Another problem was that the weather was slightly rainy that day, she says. The firefighters tested the air quality in the OR, which is on a different air exchange, and agreed to allow some patients to be "evacuated" into the OR. "We moved patients within the facility temporarily where they could recover and be monitored safely by nurses from PACU staff," Jackson says. All nonessential staff were evacuated into the parking lot.

Eventually the source of the smell was identified: A battery in a mobile computer, only eight months old, had overheated and deteriorated.

The evacuation went well and staff were allowed to return to the building two hours later. The staff recently had held drills for fires and other disasters. "Everyone worked extremely well," Jackson says. "They were familiar with the safety manual."

The lessons learned? "You never know what's around the corner," Jackson says. "Keep your staff apprised of your evacuation procedures and safety policies and procedures of your specific unit."

The center has frequent drills that involve the fire department. A few months before the evacuation, Jackson held an inservice for the fire department to discuss evacuations plans, including evacuation of an active OR. "Since then we have formed a task force that will be organizing a `mock evacuation' involving all the fire department and the staff with a scenario that involves truly evacuating the OR to the outside, according to our unit-specific plan."


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