Hospital gas scare blamed on bad communication

The Royal  Infirmary at Little France was hit. Picture: TSPL
The Royal Infirmary at Little France was hit. Picture: TSPL
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A GAS scare at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary that led to patients being evacuated was hampered by a serious staff communication breakdown, a probe found.

Two wards were cleared of patients after the gas, known as RM200, which is intended to put out fires, was released when an alarm went off in an IT room at the ERI.

However a major investigation into the incident has uncovered a dangerous breakdown in communication between the private firm runs the hospital and NHS workers.

Consort staff who run the hospital under a controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal called 999 after the scare.

But “speculations and exaggerations” led firefighters to fear they were dealing with a far more serious incident. Staff uncertainty over what sort of gas it was also resulted in fire chiefs calling for back up and gave the impression hazardous chemicals were present adding to the overall confusion.

Hospital workers also failed to inform the correct members of staff what was happening, the probe found.

David Forbes, a regional organiser with Unison, said the chaotic handling of the scare highlighted the potential dangers of the PFI contract used to build and run the hospital.

“Apart from the financial rip-off one of our other major concerns about the PFI deal is the inherent problems of communication between two employers. This was something fundamental to health and safety and this incident appears to confirm that fear,” he said.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service said it had initially been called to a chemical incident on the morning of September 4 and sent two fire engines, an incident support unit, a command support unit and a detection, identification and monitoring vehicle to the hospital.

Lyn McDonald, the Royal Infirmary’s hospital director, said the fire service had decided to evacuate two outpatient departments as a precaution and that patient safety was not at risk during the episode. Services returned to normal after around an hour. She added: “We carried out an investigation following this incident as is best practice following incidents of this nature and to ensure that business continuity plans are up to date. This investigation found that the initial communications between our staff and our PFI partners, Consort could have been more accurate. We will use the learning from this incident to help us shape our future response.”

• THE controversial PFI deal used to run the Royal Infirmary was called into question this week when it emerged that private staff who prepare meals for patients also offered a “hospitality” menu to corporate guests.

Among the items on offer – at a cost of up to £17 per head to fat cats – were fresh cucumber, courgette and minted yoghurt salads, sirloin of Scotch beef and spinach and soft herb fritattas. Patients meals given by NHS Lothian cost £4.50 per day in ingredients costs.

Trade Unions said the practice showed how the private firms involved in the PFI deal were using their position in the hospital to make money rather than help patients.