“Bird blamed for hour-long power outage St. Luke’s Magic Valley hospital”
“Sunshine Coast University Hospital cancels elective surgery due to power issues”
“Power outage temporarily affects St. Mary’s Medical Center”
“No lives were lost from the power outages experienced at the University Teaching Hospital”
“Health Minister says he’s looking for answers after reports parts of Middlemore Hospital were running on back-up power for weeks”
“Storm Hits Newark Hard: Hospital Loses Power”
These are headlines from the last few weeks. No doubt many more long-term care facilities, ambulatory surgical centers, and other lower-acuity healthcare providers have lost power too – they tend not to make headlines.
It’s not enough to have a generator; you must be prepared for a complete power failure.
Recently I asked a “seasoned” nurse if her younger colleagues could even take a patient’s temperature without an electronic thermometer. “Some can,” she replied, “but I’m not sure they know would know how to record it with paper and pencil!”
Every healthcare provider needs to be prepared to provide essential services without electric power. It’s OK if the nursing home resident’s TV doesn’t work, but you need to be able to maintain her health, including delivery of medicine and recording vital signs, without power. And you need to be able to do it by flashlight. For a few days.
Generators aren’t infallible: They are designed and built by humans, installed, and maintained by humans, and they are vulnerable to storm damage, flooding, and other accidents, both human-made and natural.
Generators don’t power everything: When your facility was designed, specific electric circuits were wired to a transfer switch, which connects to your backup generator when grid power is lost. You need to make sure that life-saving equipment is always connected to those outlets, which should be marked (often the receptacles are orange). Not all lights are connected to the generator. Make sure you know (a) which outlets and circuits are connected, and (b) that the right equipment (and ONLY the essential equipment) is plugged into the proper circuits.
Generators are temporary solutions: Your generator and fuel supplies may be designed for 72 hours or 96 hours of whatever load is planned for. Plugging in television sets or any other non-essential devices will burn fuel at a faster rate and exhaust your fuel sooner. That’s enough to get past most local power outages caused by storms, birds, or the like. It would not have been enough after Hurricanes Katrina or Maria, Superstorm Sandy, or other longer-term disasters. Refueling will be difficult after widespread disasters.
No hospital is ever going to allow us to test their power-outage response. The lawyers would envision some patient harmed by even a temporary lack of essential treatment. So, each facility and each professional has to conduct their drills on a smaller scale.
A nursing home could schedule a “Blackout Party” one evening at dinner. Food, prepared without electricity, can be served by battery-powered candlelight, and after dinner, residents can gather in the common areas to remember the great blackouts of earlier days, while staff delivers evening prescriptions. Other staff can check each room to ensure that each essential device is still operating on generator power. This tests the headlamps, the alternate food preparation plan, and the generator. Let it run for four or more hours; a twenty-minute test only checks the starter.