San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Calderón Guardia Touts Advances

Eager to show how Calderón Guardia Hospital’s emergency system has been improved since a tragic fire two years ago took 19 lives, Assistant Manager Carlos Alfaro rapped on the door of the hospital’s new round-the-clock camera surveillance center.

He waited, but no one answered.

“The guard is probably having a coffee,” he said.

The missing guard summed up the results of a one-hour tour Alfaro gave The Tico Times Wednesday.

“We’ve made a lot of improvements,” Alfaro said, and hesitated. “Bueno, we lack a lot more.”

The laundry list of improvements made to the hospital’s emergency system since the fire totals about $1 million in investment, according to Alfaro.

Since the July 2005 fire, which came seven months after a smaller fire in the hospital’s library, the hospital has been scrambling to improve its disaster prevention and response system. When flames gutted the fourth and fifth floors of the oldest part of the hospital complex, killing 16 patients and three nurses, and forcing the haphazard evacuation of hundreds, authorities drew criticism for not heeding warnings that the hospital was an ill-equipped fire trap (TT, July 15, 2005).

Alfaro says his employees are prepared to lead an evacuation in the case of another emergency.

“The most important thing at the moment of emergency is the training of the people there,” he said. That’s why firefighters have already trained 700 of the hospital’s 3,000 employees in emergency response. He hopes to have the rest trained within two years.

During the 2005 fire, patients couldn’t find their way through smoke-choked stairwells in the dark after the electricity cut off, which is why the hospital has since installed back-up lights in the emergency stairwells and throughout the hospital that will last up to 40 minutes in case the electricity cuts off again.

The hospital’s water pump, which feeds the top floor’s emergency hoses with water, didn’t work during the fire either. That’s why the hospital has installed a new auxiliary pump.

The hospital’s north wing has seen vast improvements: 300 new fire extinguishers which are tested monthly; ubiquitous evacuation signs with reflectors; a new and expanded surveillance system with 16 cameras in high-risk areas that are monitored (bueno, nearly) 24 hours a day; new smoke sensors. But it is only one of a half-dozen buildings on the hospital grounds.

Alfaro said there are plans to install new alarms which deaf people can see; put pressurized smoke ventilators in the hospital’s stairwells; expand the surveillance system to 220 cameras; and connect the hospital’s alarm system to the fire station so firefighters are immediately notified of any problem.

“I have faith we’ll make more major improvements in the short term,” he said.


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