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What Happens If a Hospital Loses Power During a Disaster?

After a tropical storm hit Los Angeles in August, a blackout at the city's White Memorial Hospital forced the health care provider to evacuate more than 200 patients from a building housing neonatal intensive care and OB-GYN units.

hospital emergency room sign
(TNS) - Catastrophic fires, extreme weather and cyberattacks have increasingly shown the vulnerabilities of U.S. emergency management procedures and even sometimes the power grid, itself.

But what if you need a hospital when the power goes out? With buildings that rely on electricity for lighting, medical equipment and life-sustaining devices to provide care, security systems, fire alarms, exit systems, air conditioning, heat and electronic health records, hospitals are uniquely vulnerable to power outages.

In August, after the first tropical storm to hit Los Angeles in 84 years, a blackout at the city's White Memorial Hospital forced the health care provider to evacuate more than 200 patients from a building housing neonatal intensive care and OB-GYN units.

In Connecticut, hospital officials say you need not worry.

Whether your hospital is in New Haven, Bridgeport, West Haven, Hartford, Greenwich, Meriden, Torrington, Norwich, New Britain or New London, they've got you covered.

At every hospital the state's two largest health care networks, Yale New Haven Health System and Hartford HealthCare, operate, emergency generators kick in as soon as there is a brownout or a hint that the power grid is about to fail, representatives of both networks said.

"We have not one but multiple generators, and they can go over 96 hours," said Anne Diamond, president of Bridgeport Hospital and Yale New Haven Health's executive vice president and co-executive sponsor for systemwide emergency preparedness.

"We always plan to be able to go at least 72 hours," and "we even have fuel cells and solar power," Diamond said, adding that the generators are tested frequently.

"Every acute care hospital in the country is required to have an emergency generator" by the Joint Commission, which is a standards organization, as well as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and, in Connecticut, the state Department of Public Health, Diamond said.

"We have to have fire safety, lighting to do emergency surgery," and "there's always exogenous threats" that could put hospitals in jeopardy, she said.

"As soon as the power dips, when you have a brownout ... the generators turn on," Diamond said. "It does take like 7 seconds for the generators to turn on — and we are so careful about that six- or seven-second bridge."

At Yale New Haven Hospital, there are three big yellow, diesel-fueled 2-megawatt emergency generators, each with its own circuit breaker, side by side in a dedicated room on the 16th floor of the hospital's North Pavilion. Two kick on if the need arises, and a third is in reserve in case of a problem with the other two.

Each is attached to a diesel fuel tank that, in turn, is supplied by a much larger tank elsewhere.

In addition to generators, "we keep 96 hours of water, not just for patients but for staff. Same thing with food," Diamond said.

"You have to be able to make sleeping arrangements. ... You give them a place to sleep, a place to shower, where to eat."

That said, Diamond said she can't remember the last time any of the Yale New Haven Health facilities had a full-blown power-outage.

"This is a continuous process. We learn from drills, we learn from actual process ... We take the information and we get better each time," Diamond said. "It's constant improvement. We're always trying to get better."

Diamond is working on her doctoral dissertation on hospital preparedness for a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear event in the greater NYC area. As part of her dissertation in homeland security at National University in San Diego, she will survey 35-40 hospitals in Connecticut, Westchester County, N.Y., and northern New Jersey, she said. As part of her dissertation in homeland security at National University in San Diego, Diamond will soon survey 35-40 hospitals in Connecticut, Westchester County, N.Y., and northern New Jersey, she said.

While Yale New Haven Health and Hartford HealthCare are competitors on many levels, both Diamond and Patrick Turek, senior system director for public safety and emergency management at Hartford HealthCare, said that when it comes to emergency management, the two networks — and others, such as Stamford Health — talk to each other.

Turek said they exchange ideas and discuss common challenges frequently in various forums, including the Connecticut Healthcare Coalition.

Diamond said, "It's a true statewide collaborative."

"We're all in this together," and "in a lot of ways, the communities overlap," she said. "We collaborate, even though we might be competitors in another front. You don't see Ford and GM collaborating like that."

That cooperation "was so tested in a positive manner during COVID," Turek said. "Many of these things are direct descendants of what happened during 9/11."

Yale New Haven Health's facilities include Yale New Haven Hospital along with Smilow Cancer Hospital, Yale New Haven Children's Hospital and Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital in New Haven; Bridgeport Hospital; Milford Hospital; Greenwich Hospital; Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, and Westerly Hospital in Rhode Island, which serves eastern Connecticut.

Hartford HealthCare's facilities include Hartford Hospital, St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, MidState Medical Center in Meriden, Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, Backus Hospital in Norwich, Windham Hospital in Willimantic and The Hospital of Central Connecticut's New Britain General and Bradley Memorial facilities in New Britain and Southington.

Turek said that all of Hartford HealthCare's hospitals are equipped to operate when the power goes out, even for an extended period.

"We are equipped to ensure that when those generators turn on ... we could run indefinitely or until that emergency passes," he said.

"We have multiple generators at all of our hospital locations to make sure that they're fully redundant," Turek said. "We do monthly and annual testing. If we do encounter problems, we have specialty contracts set aside."

From a regulatory standpoint, "they would ask us to have a plan" to stay up and running for a particular span of time, such as 72 hours, "but we aim to meet or exceed" government mandates, he said. "For us, all options are on the table: We do have cogeneration at some of our facilities. Solar panels are deployed on a limited basis."

And the planning goes beyond keeping the power on to how to provide things such as potable and critical ventilation during a crisis and ensuring "that building envelopes are secure."

"It all comes down to resiliency at our hospitals," Turek said. "It appears that our world continues to grow more complex every day ... and our customers, our patients and even our staff expect us" to remain up and running all the time.

Those involved in planning for the worst are always looking for ways to increase preparedness, plan mitigation measures and put in place plans and policies to guide the facilities should something ever happen, he said.

They also plan how they might respond should something catastrophic happen in the middle of the night, Turek said.

"It would be convenient for an emergency to occur during normal business hours, but the striking reality is ... things can happen overnight," he said.

And as is the case in many organizations, they constantly do training drills and exercises to make sure they can respond to a possible threat 24/7, Turek said.

At the VA Connecticut Healthcare System's West Haven VA Medical Center, there are on-site emergency power-generating capabilities along with fuel storage to allow for extended operation of generators, said hospital spokeswoman Pamela Redmond.

"VA Connecticut's emergency power generators meet Joint Commission and VA requirements for design, capacity, fuel storage and periodic testing," Redmond said.

"From a power standpoint, VA Connecticut has the capacity to support all critical operations," Redmond said. In an emergency, "healthcare system leadership would determine — with consultation from providers — which clinical operations would continue," she said.

Senior leadership would determine which services to continue based on the circumstances of the outage, she said.

The hospital "has solar panels and solar power systems on-site, but these are not considered part of the emergency power system," Redmond said. "We use solar systems for energy efficiency and green energy initiatives.

"In the event of a campus-wide power outage, the emergency generators are the primary source of power and sized to meet requirements," she said.


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