Weigh Your Risks When Protecting Electronic Records From Fire

Scott Wallask, for HealthLeaders Media , June 2, 2009

Hospitals protect paper medical records from fire by installing sprinkler systems and building features that enclose storage rooms.

But with electronic recordkeeping growing more prominent, the strategies for safeguarding patient data are shifting to systems that protect electronic equipment.

"As the healthcare industry transitions from file storage to electronic storage of personal medical records, the fire hazards associated with medical record storage will also change," says Anthony Gee, a product manager for Victaulic in Easton, PA, which manufactures grooved pipe joining systems used in fire protection.

Start with a well-known approach
At the heart of electronic medical record protection is the common strategy of conducting risk assessments, says Lance Harry, PE, director of sales for Chemetron Fire Systems based in Matteson, IL.

As Harry views it, hospital CEOs and administrators must ask themselves these questions:

  • What is the value of medical records?
  • What is the risk of losing those records?
  • How can we best protect them?

Compare protection strategies
Facilities generally protect paper records using a wet pipe or pre-action sprinkler system. As its name implies, wet systems feature pipes that are always filled with water, while pre-action systems are filled with pressurized air and only charge with water when a smoke detector in a protected space signals the fire alarm panel.

Staff members may also be able to protect paper records rooms using portable fire extinguishers, if workers can safely use the extinguishers to suppress the flames quickly, Gee says.

By comparison, safeguards for electronic medical records storage generally include some form of precise early warning (e.g., air sampling or a high-sensitivity smoke detection system) combined with fire protection equipment that discharges a clean extinguishing agent. Such clean agents don't leave residue after discharge.

Clean agent systems cost more than traditional sprinkler systems. Water mist systems and quick-response sprinklers can also protect electronic records.

Don't forget to back up files
Gee raises a last important point: Clean agent systems will extinguish fires on sensitive electronic records equipment, but they won't prevent fires from starting. Therefore, facilities must ensure medical files are backed up elsewhere, because even a short-lived fire can damage enough equipment to render data irretrievable.

If electronic files are backed up and a fire occurs, that data can be loaded back onto the original storage equipment later or onto new equipment as needed, Gee says.

Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for the Hospital Safety Center. He can be reached at swallask@hcpro.com.

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