Western State Hospital staff put on fire watch duty due to ‘critical safety situation’

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Western State Hospital

SEATTLE (AP) — Washington state’s largest psychiatric hospital is in a “critical safety situation” after inspectors discovered problems with the sprawling facility’s fire response system.

To ensure that Western State Hospital patients are safe, state officials have implemented a fire watch program that involves staff looking for “evidence of smoke and fire in all areas,” according to a memo sent Tuesday to workers by Sean Murphy, the hospital’s chief safety officer.

Officials with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid and the state Department of Health were conducting an inspection at the 800-bed hospital when the problems were discovered.

According to a safety bulletin sent to staff, the problems included doors at the facility that had been modified, “leading to loss of fire rating for the door.”

The federal agency threatened to cut millions of federal funds after a series of safety violations were discovered last year.

The state has until July to fix the problems, and the federal inspectors returned Monday to determine how the hospital is doing in its effort to come into compliance. Their inspection continued Thursday.

Federal officials issued a so-called “immediate jeopardy” notification for the hospital, meaning the hospital’s actions or inaction to resolve the fire concerns “has caused, or is likely to cause, serious injury, harm, impairment, or death of a resident.”

The hospital is developing a plan to fix the problems identified by the inspectors, said Priya Helweg, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. She declined to provide details.

Carla Reyes, the assistant secretary for Behavioral Administration at the state agency that oversees the hospital, said in a statement the “serious concerns with fire protections and alarm systems” were being addressed.

Reyes said they have a three-month contract with a staffing contractor to help with fire watch duties.

“Long-term solutions will be further explored once the survey is complete and we have received the surveyors’ detailed reports and findings,” she said.

The hospital was thrust into the national spotlight last year after two dangerous patients escaped, leading to a statewide manhunt before they were apprehended.

One had been accused of torturing a woman to death. Gov. Jay Inslee fired the hospital’s CEO and sought state funds to hire more staff.

The fire watch duties for the hospital’s medical staff are preventing them from caring for patients, Nursing Supervisor Paul Vilja told The Associated Press.

“One staff member does zero patient care, and in a circular fashion feels a door for heat, opens the door and visually looks for smoke and fire and repeats doing this all day,” he said.

The duties are also forcing hospital staff to work mandatory overtime hours, he said.

The hospital “is incapable of maintaining base staffing levels without the utilization of massive overtime and mandatory overtime,” he said. “With the fire checks, overtime will be unsustainable.”

Hospital CEO Cheryl Strange told staff in an email that workers from the Department of Social and Health Services were being brought in to help conduct the fire watch duties to relieve hospital workers.

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