In the Midwest, a searing summer heat wave caused blackouts in Missouri. In Florida, officials wonder when the next big series of hurricanes will crisscross the state. In New Orleans, officials are far from clearing up all the damage from Hurricane Katrina a year after the devastating storm hit the coast. In Queens, tens of thousands of people went for more than a week without electricity in a scorching hot July. And in California, recent rolling blackouts are a fresh reminder of the massive energy crunch that afflicted the state just a few years ago.
Just about everywhere you look these days, there are fresh reminders of the fragile energy supply system that hospitals and critical care facilities rely on to stay up and running. And the constant threat of an electrical supply crisis or another regional grid collapse like the one that crippled the Northeast in 2003 has had hospitals and energy experts throughout the country rethinking the size, location and other requirements of their emergency backup systems.
"As a baseline, there are strict requirements that they have to follow," says Jon Ross, vice president of Smith Seckman Reid, Inc., a large, national engineering firm headquartered in Nashville, Tenn. that has deep expertise in working with healthcare facilities. Ross explains the baseline is laid out under the guidelines in the National Fire Protection Association's standards for required systems. The NFPA doesn't enforce the standards, but a wide variety of state and federal officials, as well as healthcare organizations, adhere to its section on healthcare.
The NFPA guidelines outline a variety of recommendations for generators needed for life safety, critical concerns with patient care and support of hospital equipment. But there are a varying number of state rules now regarding how long a hospital has to be able to operate independently of the grid.
"The reason is that the code-writing folks realize that certain states are different and more reliable," says Ross. California, for example, has some unique emergency guidelines due to the possibility of a catastrophic earthquake. So the state outlined a requirement that hospitals be able to stay powered up to emergency standards for 96 hours. And that's not the only thing that sets California apart. Its hospitals have installed chillers to keep air conditioning systems in operation, a step beyond most regulatory requirements.
In other cases, institutions have chosen to live up to even higher standards of their own making. SSR has been working on the emergency system for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which opted to put in a major system that would keep it up and running on its own for at least four days.
There's also no doubt, adds Ross, that a lot of states and hospital groups have been rethinking their emergency power standards in the wake of recent disasters. Flooding in Houston several years ago prompted hospitals there to move their backup generators higher up, above flood levels — a move adopted by a variety of regions that are also at an increased risk to face flooding. Oschner Hospital in New Orleans was one of the few in the city that wasn't inundated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but its decision to install generators above flood level is being embraced in that area, as other hospitals rebuild their facilities.
One good trend for hospitals is that while most are installing more equipment than ever, the new systems are also considerably more energy efficient than earlier generations of technology. But these new systems are also often more sensitive to even momentary lapses in electricity. As a result, quite a few hospitals have been adopting new systems that can provide brief bursts of electricity to give a generator enough time — often less than a minute — to come online without forcing everyone to reboot computer systems. And even though it may require more power than the NFPA guidelines, there are signs that IT demands are being figured into the equation for basic emergency power needs.
"Talk with any hospital IT manager, and they will tell you that their servers, routers and desktops are every bit as important as any equipment on the essential power distribution system," wrote Dennis Broyles, an electrical engineer in Parsons' healthcare sector, in a recent piece on emergency hospital power systems. "It is becoming necessary to have these loads on the essential power distribution system, too."
Behind all the new planning for emergency power, says Ross, there's an underlying concern that the country's aging electrical power system is likely to experience more and more difficulties in the future.
"They don't trust the infrastructure, which they have no control over," Ross says of hospital administrators' confidence level in their local systems. "They're looking more and more to be self-sufficient."
In some cases, hospitals may find there's a financial payback for their investment. Some hospitals have set up contracts in which they agree to take their whole hospital off the local grid in case of an emergency, providing their own electricity from generators and relieving a stressed system of a significant power need. In exchange, they're winning lower energy rates that allow them to bring down the regular cost of doing business. Those savings can then be applied to the cost of the emergency equipment that is needed to keep the hospital supplied with all the energy required to sustain their essential systems in times of a power crisis.