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All but one New York Hospital maintained power when monster storm Sandy struck

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
monster storm Sandy, power outage, Tisch hospital, emergency power

Monster storm Sandy caused widespread power outages in New York City; however, all but one hospital in the city continued to operate relatively normally because of emergency backup power. Acute care hospitals have had emergency backup power in place for decades. I had an up-close-and personal experience with this emergency system when the Sylmar, California earthquake struck in 1971. I was on duty in the labor and delivery area that night in a hospital located in Hollywood. After a strong jolt, all the lights went off. In a matter of seconds, power returned. Sensing devices promptly fired up the emergency generators. A glance out the window told me that the rest of the city was totally dark.

Loss of electrical power can be a major inconvenience. Only battery powered devices continue to function. If power is off for any length of time, food in the refrigerator and freezer is spoiled. In a hospital, however, an outage can cause loss of life. Patients ranging in age from infants to seniors on life support will perish in short order if the equipment fails. Without power, a hospital cannot serve its patients, let alone disaster victims who come to the hospital for care.

During my experience, and countless others, hospital emergency power systems function flawlessly; however, that was not the case for New York University Tisch Hospital where an emergency backup generator failed, forcing the evacuation of more than 200 patients, including 20 babies. Some of the patients were being treated for cancer and other serious illnesses. The babies in incubators were warm and safe, thanks to emergency batteries contained in the units. Battery power also supplied electricity to respirators serving older patients.

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Without power, there were no elevators; thus, patients had to be carefully carried down staircases. Ambulances were dispatched from around the city to help transport the sick. Patients were taken to other hospitals including Mount Sinai Hospital, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Lenox Hill Hospital, and Bellevue Hospital. Consolidated Edison noted that most of the power outages in lower Manhattan, where Tisch is located, were due to an explosion at an electrical substation. They were not sure whether flooding or flying debris caused the explosion.

Hospitals are required to test their emergency backup power systems on a monthly basis. Despite this requirement, failures such as the one at Tisch Hospital do occur. These situations serve as a reminder that continued diligence is required to keep the failure rate to an absolute minimum. All US hospitals require certification by the Joint Commission; the organization accredits and certifies more than 19,000 healthcare organizations and programs in the United States. Joint Commission accreditation and certification is recognized nationwide as a symbol of quality that reflects an organization’s commitment to meeting certain performance standards.

The Joint Commission notes that healthcare facilities are highly dependent on reliable sources of electrical power. Therefore, electric power is a mission-critical resource. Each healthcare facility must assess the risk of electrical power failure – at various degrees of magnitude and impact severity – and make plans to deal with such an emergency. Planning and implementation of risk reduction approaches to addressing electrical power failure are the responsibility of the facility engineer, as well as organization management, the risk manager, incident command leaders, and the medical staff. By assuming access to emergency electrical power systems and implementing contingency plans for clinicians to follow during both short-term and sustained losses of power, healthcare organizations can reduce the risk of adverse patient care events.

Reference: Joint Commission