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Pumping Inflatable Field Hospitals; Sheffield Lake’s FSI North America Makes, Sells Them

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Terrorist attacks exploded through America s Northeast in 2001; deadly hurricanes swept across the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Last week, wildfires reduced Southern California neighborhoods to cinders. Wednesday, an earthquake rocked northern California – gently, yes. But who knows what it will be next time?

Mark Conron is the first to admit that events like these have helped his Sheffield Lake business, FSI North America, grow like crazy. He also knows that calamity strikes when we least expect it.

Conron makes products designed to respond to the unexpected head-on. One of those, a 5,500-square-foot mobile hospital, was on display Wednesday in North Olmsted.

It took a half-dozen workers about three hours to set up the inflatable, $250,000 structure, destined for a health-care consortium in Peoria, Ill. Deflated, it stores in six desk-size bundles, ready for any emergency.

Consider the implications. If you re a hospital administrator and you look out the window and see crowds coming to get treated, here s a way to respond, Conron said.

He sees the possibility that health-care, municipal, state and federal emergency and safety operations, schools and other institutions might buy and pack away shrink-wrapped mobile systems like this. They can drag them out, pump them up and put them to use when needed.

The 52-year-old business owner paced near the goal of an indoor field at the North Olmsted Soccer Sportsplex, talking on his cell phone. A half-dozen others fretted with one of the six big bundles sitting 20 yards apart on the artificial turf.

They were setting up the system to check it out before shipping it, and also had a video production team there to capture the process for an instructional DVD. Plus, Conron invited a range of potential Northeast Ohio customers – from hospitals and safety and emergency agencies – to check out the product.

The workers took out of one of the cases what looked like a tangle of blue, teal and white tarpaulins and unfolded the nylon fabric and Velcro flaps onto the grass-like surface. When they finished, a 1,000-square-foot rectangle of layers of fabric lay midfield. They began spreading out the others.

Joe Villegas, FSI vice president, explained the layout: This one, he said, is like the hub, where emergency and medical personnel would work and maybe even sleep. These, he said, waving his hand, will be what you might call wings. You keep patients on cots in here and maybe have a surgical suite. Whatever you want.

The system Villegas and his associates were erecting will be a 110-bed mobile hospital that could go up in a parking lot on very short notice. The sprawl of interconnected enclosures conveys little sense of the confinement one associates with a tent.

In fact, the structural design of the company s mobile shelters is pretty intriguing. It s not at all like the inflatable playhouses that some rent for children s birthday parties. Those have sewn seams and double-membrane walls that deflate as fast as they fill. Pumps have to stay on all the time, Conron said.

Seams in FSI structures are sealed with adhesives. The air flows into flexible posts and beams — like the big timbers in an old barn — that, when inflated to five pounds per square inch, feel as solid as cement pillars.

Conron s posts and beams are made of the thick fabric that FSI and other companies use to make lifeboats and other emergency watercraft. They hold their air pressure for days or weeks, he said.

Becky Conron, Mark s wife and also an FSI executive, checked one of the rumbling pumps that were quickly inflating the mobile units. The shelter s peaked roof was rising visibly. In 10 minutes, the central hub of the building was standing tall.

But there was a glitch. Flimsy pump hoses were giving out before the mobile hospital rooms could completely inflate. Villegas found clamps that, for a time, got the failing hoses through the crisis. But Conron was clearly unhappy with the pumps, which he had bought from a vacuum cleaner company in New York.

The rest of the building project went smoothly. Workers padded around in floppy white foot coverings to keep the shelter s floors clean, sealing the corridors between individual shelters with Velcro flaps.

Conron shared some of the new hospital s features: inner white fabric walls with anti-microbial coating, 18 inches of insulating dead air between inner and outer walls, tie-downs for securing the units in high winds — up to 70 miles per hour, he said — screened windows and an air-handling system that heats and cools. About 700 work hours go into each 1,000-square-foot room.

The emergency and safety products are appealing enough to have helped drive up FSI s revenues 50 percent a year since 2001. Last year s sales were between $5 million and $10 million, Conron said. He expects 15 percent to 20 percent annual growth for the next five years as the company sells bigger, more sophisticated shelters.

As the final section of the mobile hospital inflated, Conron paced, talking on his cell phone to the vacuum cleaner company that sold him the pumps.

Look, he said. I m shipping this quarter-million-dollar product right away. We ve got 15 of your pumps here we re using. And 12 of the hoses that came with them have blown out. Yes! he barked. Twelve!

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: [email protected], 216-999-4116