The fire marshal ordered an area of the emergency room at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C., to be cleared on Tuesday because of overcrowding.
Fraser Health Authority spokesman Michael Burnard said the fire department was called to the hospital after receiving a complaint about crowding.
"He took a look around the emergency room and found it was unacceptable crowding in one particular area where he wanted to have free access and egress in the event of a fire or a problem," he said.
Eleven people were waiting to be assessed in the ER and 27 more were in the admissions area when the marshal arrived. The hospital is one of the province's busiest.
Some of the patients being admitted were moved to wards throughout the hospital.
"In order words, (they were moved to areas) where we knew people were being discharged this afternoon," Burnard said. "We moved some people up and in some cases some people spent some time in the hallway waiting for a bed to come free."
The fire marshal toured the wards and approved of the temporary efforts to free up space in the emergency room.
While the area was being cleared, the emergency ward was not allowed to admit patients by ambulance. Walk-ins were allowed.
"What we told BC Ambulance drivers was that they should check first with the nurse in charge before bringing patients in," Burnard said.
He explained that in cases like this, if those arriving in ambulances are in stable condition, they remain in the vehicle until there is room inside the hospital to be treated.
Burnard said he didn't know if there were any such cases on Tuesday.
He said certain times of the year are busier than others so it's hard to predict when the ER will be full.
"Particularly this time of year, we get spikes and peaks not infrequently," he said. "Things like Norwalk virus and all sorts of things that come into play in admissions."
The area was cleared about five hours after the marshal first arrived.
Burnard said hospital officials will be taking Tuesday's incident very seriously.
"We're going to be looking into more ways of moving people into beds more quickly as they come available," he said. "In the long term, we are looking at adding capacity as time goes on."