In early July 2018, a contractor hit an underground power line, pulling it from the transformer. The mistake left Richmond’s Chippenham Hospital without power for four and a half hours, from about 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Turning what might have been a momentary inconvenience into a crisis, the hospital’s emergency generator failed to serve as an alternate power supply during the outage. Many of the hospital’s machines, used to treat and keep patients alive, rely on electricity. When those machines could not function because of the power outage, patients were placed at serious risk. In addition, one of the hospital workers reported that people were stuck in elevators, machines treating babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit failed, and patients throughout the hospital who needed oxygen could not receive it. In fact, 11 patients required transportation to nearby hospitals.
Why Do Power Outages Occur at Hospitals?The power outage at Chippenham Hospital is an example of the frequent power problems that plague hospitals. Other high-tech buildings don’t have the same issues because they invest in emergency power protection to prevent revenue losses. Hospitals typically have smaller budgets, and simply do not spend on emergency power protection at rates comparable to banks or other major institutions. Furthermore, no federal laws or regulations require hospitals, or any other industry, to purchase sophisticated emergency power systems. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHCO), and other agencies require diesel generators, but nothing more. Like other hospitals, Chippenham Hospital has a diesel generator for emergencies—and that generator failed during the July 2018 outage.
What Does a Power Outage Really Mean for a Hospital?When a power outage occurs at a hospital, medical staff lose access to the critical resources, systems, tools, and equipment needed to care for vulnerable patients. Some examples and their consequences include:
- HVAC systems that provide heating, cooling, and ventilation will fail, exposing particularly vulnerable patients
- Respiratory devices and other life-sustaining equipment for patients in the NICU, ICU, and cardiac units will fail, putting lives at risk
- Lighting for urgent or in-progress surgical procedures will fail, forcing medical professionals and staff to make on-the-spot decisions between multiple poor options—proceed, stop, or postpone
- Staff will lose access to electronic medical records
- Call buttons will fail to work, leaving patients without a way to get help in an emergency
- Windowless rooms will black out, causing a heightened risk of injury for patients, employees, and visitors
- Any spaces that require keyless entry will lock down, resulting in the loss of access to critical medications and supplies