Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A fire broke out last month in an operating room at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center where a patient was undergoing a neck surgery, according to state fire inspectors who visited the Bangor hospital between Oct. 29 and Nov. 3 and have determined the facility failed to follow federal safety rules.

Few details about the fire were available Thursday, including the specific date it happened, how serious it was and whether the patient was harmed.

But the state fire marshal’s office outlined some of the hospital’s rule violations in a Nov. 12 letter and report to EMMC. For example, staff failed to coat the patient’s head and facial hair in a lubricant that’s meant to reduce flammability around the surgical site, according to the inspectors’ report, and they didn’t stop the use of supplemental gas for one minute before administering an electric current on the patient’s tissue — a technique that’s known as “electrosurgery.”

The staff used a 26 mL applicator of alcoholic antiseptic solution to prepare the surgical site even though the manufacturer of that applicator indicated that it should not be used for neck and head surgery. After the fire started, staff reportedly didn’t pull a fire alarm or immediately report the fire, according to the fire marshal’s report.

As a result, the hospital is under investigation by federal regulators from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, according to Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. State fire inspectors conducted their review on the federal agency’s behalf.

Suzanne Spruce, a spokesperson for the hospital’s parent group, Northern Light Health, confirmed that “a fire occurred in one of the operating rooms” at EMMC last month and that the case “involved a patient,” but she declined to provide additional information, citing “patient confidentiality.”

“These occurrences are rare, and we are very sorry this happened at our facility,” Spruce said in a statement. “The safety of patients and employees is a responsibility we take seriously. We have completed a thorough investigation and have taken immediate steps to prevent this from happening again.”

Bangor Fire Chief Thomas Higgins said that his department did not respond to the incident, and he did not have additional information about it.

At least 650 operating room fires occur in the U.S. each year, resulting in two to three patient deaths, according to a March 2019 article in the journal Anesthesiology. Some common sources of ignition are electrosurgical units and lasers, with alcohol skin preps and patient hair often providing the fuel. Oxygen and nitrous oxide commonly in use in operating rooms also contribute.

BDN writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.