Electrical power equipment designed to prevent overloaded circuitry failed in New York this summer, leading to a five-hour blackout in parts of the city on July 13, pushing Mount Sinai Hospital West into disaster-response mode.
Mount Sinai executives acted quickly, switching to alternative power coming from its several diesel-powered generators, which allowed the facility to keep its clinical areas operational as well as other vital departments such as the pharmacy, laboratories and certain elevators, said Don Boyce, vice president of emergency management for parent Mount Sinai Health System.
As a result, there was no major disruption in any of Mount Sinai West’s care delivery service lines.
While power outages are less alarming than weather-related disasters that often lead to a loss of power, they still require extensive and ongoing planning and oversight, something that hospital and system executives are learning after recent outages in other places such as Hawaii, New Jersey and suburban Seattle.
The outage near Seattle hit Valley Medical Center in Renton, Wash., hard enough that fire crews on June 26 were forced to move patients stranded on upper floors to the ground floor, while some were stranded in elevators. Valley Medical declined to comment.
In New York, though the blackout was handled with relative ease by providers and staff at Mount Sinai West on Manhattan’s West Side, the event still offered lessons for the disaster management team at the hospital and its parent. One thing learned through the experience: It’s not just medications requiring cool temperatures that are at risk of spoilage.
“We were monitoring the temperature in the refrigeration, but we were also monitoring the heat and humidity in the areas that had shelf-stable medications, because some of those medications have a threshold for heat as well,” Boyce said. “As good as we can prepare there are always opportunities for us to get better.”
That kind of strategy is what experts say is appropriate but getting harder to maintain as hospital care delves deeper into technology and the size of hospitals and systems grows.
Beth Israel Lahey Health in Boston takes an all-hazards approach to power outages, giving a lot of attention to making each hospital resilient to emergencies and toward reducing the impact of power failures. “Fifteen years ago, we used to hold our breath and hope that nothing happened, but hope is not a strategy,” said Meg Femino, senior director of emergency management at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
A team led by three project managers runs emergency planning for the system’s five hospitals. Their approach is to create redundancies within emergency power systems by interconnecting the system’s five generators to ensure a hospital maintains power even when its primary or secondary power sources fail. “If I look back 15 years ago, if an emergency generator went out on one of our buildings on the east campus that would cause a complete power failure in that whole building,” Femino said. “Five generators are all interconnected so that if one goes out another one can back-feed these buildings.”
Much of the focus now is on preparing for the likeliest causes of power disruptions, such as extreme weather events like blizzards and hurricanes, along with disasters more indicative of urban areas such as mass transit accidents and building collapses.