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7.7.2000 Pawtucket hospital loses power 35 minutes No patients are harmed, but the incident heightens concerns over a number of power failures at area hospitals since last September.
By MATT McKINNEY Journal Staff Writer
PAWTUCKET -- A power failure at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island cut electricity to portions of the 300-bed institution for up to 35 minutes yesterday after an emergency generator unexpectedly activated, overheated and then failed, hospital officials said.
The outage cut electricity to rooms where about half of the hospital's 107 patients were staying, including four patients in the operating room, according to hospital spokeswoman Marie Koppa.
Dr. Susan Walker, an anesthesiologist, was working on one of four surgeries that had begun long before the power went out at 12:30 p.m. The lights in the operating room dimmed immediately, she said, but the room did not become dark. Battery-powered lights turned on as the main overhead lights went off, she said.
Most of the machinery in the operating room was powered by emergency batteries as well, except for some of the monitoring equipment, she said.
Battery-powered monitors were brought in to replace those that required a wall socket, and the operation continued.
"I don't know how to say this, but it was a very friendly atmosphere. People were coming into the room; anyone who was free was going to get things," she said.
Walker said she chose to ventilate her patient manually to conserve the ventilator's battery power.
Electrical crews restarted the emergency generator at 1:05 p.m. and full power was restored two hours later, according to Koppa. No patients were harmed by the outage, she said.
The power failure comes one week after an incident at Women & Infants Hospital where backup generators kicked on for an hour after power was lost.
A two-hour power failure at Rhode Island Hospital last September led to the death of a 74-year-old man when his ventilator failed.
The incident at Rhode Island Hospital prompted a state-ordered review of hospital electrical systems that next week will have Lt. Gov. Charles J. Fogarty meeting with hospital and electric company representatives.
Fogarty said the meeting originally was to talk about the need for a review of hospital electrical systems. After yesterday's power failure at Memorial Hospital, he said, it seems likely that such a review will be done.
"This latest outage at Pawtucket Memorial is particularly troubling," Fogarty said in a statement. "We have a situation where a hospital lost not only its primary but its secondary source of power after the generator kicked on and then failed," he said.
The outage was limited to the hospital's Hodgkins building, which houses the operating room, the coronary care unit, the intensive care unit, and two floors of hospital rooms. Koppa said 56 patients were inside the building when the power went out.
A number of electrical devices within the hospital contain battery packs that turn on when the power fails, including overhead lights in the operating room, according to hospital staff. A supply of orange extension cords purchased in anticipation of Y2K problems was also used to provide power to some of the affected areas, said Koppa.
Hospital officials said they don't know what caused the emergency generator to turn on in the first place.
A unexplained "blip" of electrical power caused lights to flicker on and off briefly at about 11:15 a.m. The blip triggered the emergency generator, which, when turned on, automatically breaks the hospital's two connections to the Narragansett Electric power grid.
All four surgeries were under way when the power source switched to the emergency generator.
The hospital's own maintenance crew attempted to switch off the emergency generator and reconnect the hospital's feed from Narragansett Electric, but were delayed when they discovered that a circuit breaker had been thrown open and required repair, according to a state regulatory official.
The generator's diesel engine overheated and shut down at 12:30 p.m., according to the hospital. For the next 35 minutes, hospital staff were operating on battery power or what they were able to get through the extension cords.
The generator's engine eventually cooled off and was restarted.
The hospital staff was aided by some two dozen Pawtucket firefighters who were called at 12:58 p.m., according to Battalion Chief Michael Carter. The firefighters brought seven portable generators and connected four of them to assist the hospital's own emergency equipment.
The East Providence Fire Department also responded with a portable generator, but it was not used, Carter said.
A crew from Power Products Company, an electrical contractor, repaired the open circuit breaker and switched the hospital to full power at 2:59 p.m.
Hospital spokeswoman Koppa said an investigation of the outage will continue. A spokesman for Narragansett Electric said the company dispatched several workers who determined that the company's feed into the hospital was in working order.
The emergency generator, powered by a Detroit Diesel engine, passed an annual inspection June 22 by the hospital's electric contractor, National Electric Testing Company.
The hospital's own staff inspected the emergency generator at 6:15 a.m. yesterday morning, again as part of an annual inspection, said spokeswoman Koppa.
Fogarty said the Memorial Hospital outage concerned him because it makes the third such incident in less than a year at Rhode Island hospitals.
"We're going to ask everyone to provide status reports on their facility's electrical system and backup system," Fogarty said.
Wayne Farrington, chief of facilities regulation at the state Department of Health, said it may be time to review the regulations for backup generators.
The size of hospital electrical generators is regulated by the state's Life Safety Code, maintained by the state fire marshal's office. Hospitals must meet the code's requirements to keep their accreditation, Farrington said.
With a growing reliance on technology, many hospitals simply may have outgrown their generators, said Farrington.
"There's more and more electrical systems used in hospitals today," he said.
A new generator installed at Rhode Island Hospital after last fall's breakdown, Farrington added, is three times larger than the original.
-- Doris (email@example.com), July 07, 2000