Music keeps newborns safe in neo-natal unit

Rolf Jensen & Associates get creative to solve problem at new hospital in Phoenix
Saturday, March 1, 2008

PHOENIX--Fire alarms are not normally described as melodious, but the fire alarms at the newly constructed Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Phoenix Children's Hospital might be described that way.
They're completely up to code, but when the fire alarm is triggered, there are no loud horns or flashing lights. Instead an orchestral recording of "The Promise of Living," from Aaron Copeland's opera The Tenderland, plays. The audio message that follows is a woman's voice.
The first phase of the project, a 60-bed unit, was completed in November; the second phase is underway and was expected to be completed by March 1.
This unique application of the standard fire code NFPA 72 came about earlier this year because a physician, Dr. Mark Shwer, was concerned that standard fire signaling devices could be harmful to neo-natal patients in the unit. He approached Terry Manning of fire protection consultant Rolf Jensen & Associates to see if there were an alternative, and Manning came up with the idea of using music. NFPA 72 allows for the "use of distinctive signals that are not used for any other purpose in the same area," Manning said. He consulted with the Phoenix fire marshal Barbara Koffron on his plan and to determine if strobe lights could be eliminated from the immediate area as well.
She agreed, with several stipulations, including a provision that strobes were installed in all of the support areas such as nursing stations and that annunciators identify all of the rooms where patients are so staff elsewhere can assist in the evacuation of the infants.
"Working with Barbara Koffron, Phoenix fire marshal and her staff of fire protection engineers ... we went over the whole thing and we came to the opinion that this was a legitimate and viable application, although unusual, and it does meet the code and they were brave enough to agree with it," Manning said.
Manning turned to his two sons, who are musicians, for suggestions about what music to use.
"This piece is full orchestration and ... has a preponderance of frequencies that are audible to the human ear ... if someone is hard of hearing at one frequency, they will be able to hear it at another," Manning said.
The system was installed by American Fire Equipment of Phoenix, a privately owned 16-year-old company with 110 employees, which specializes in all aspects of fire alarm and fire suppression projects.
The company did about $11 million in business in 2007, which represents "a lot of growth over the prior year when we did $7 to $8 million," said Ann Papuga, who owns the company with her husband, John.
Mark Murrell, project manager for American Fire Equipment worked on the project. "This is a project that was real close to my heart; I have two children who were preemies," he said.
Asked if other hospitals might consider installing this kind of a system, he said they should. "The system does the job very well; it could be the start of a new standard."