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Powering up for power outages

October 29, 2015
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In 2003, the northeastern United States experienced a widespread blackout that left approximately 45 million people across eight states without power. As a result, some communication and transportation systems were disrupted, some areas experienced loss of water pressure, and most businesses were unable to operate until power was restored. Unfortunately, many long-term care communities in the affected areas discovered their unpreparedness the hard way.

Many healthcare providers found that the emergency preparedness plan that they had put so much faith in did not address all of the problems they actually encountered, so they had to “wing it.” As a result of their experiences, the industry has learned many lessons.

Even a brief power outage can potentially impact multiple systems, including:

  • HVAC
  • Life-support systems (ventilators)
  • Water distribution
  • Communications
  • Fire pump and life safety systems
  • Critical lighting systems
  • Clinical IT systems
    • Electronic health records
    • Electronic document exchange/file transfers to and from the facility (discharge summaries, care plans, etc)
    • Pharmacy order access and CPOE (electronic medication orders)

One of the critical lessons learned from the 2003 blackout was that power outages do not just occur on dayshift when everyone is at work and all of the “experts” are readily available. They happen on all shifts, and usually at the worst possible times. Therefore, preplanning is a critical part of being ready for an outage.

One of the most important things is to make certain that your preparedness plan includes critical contact information for the electric utility company. Knowing where your facility is located on the power distribution network may be of value as well. Meeting with the electric utility company in advance may be a valuable step—emphasize the effects a power outage has on your operations and on the care of your residents. Many times, long-term care facilities are not thought about, while hospitals and urgent care facilities receive all the attention.

Power outages are another strong argument for allowing all employees to carry cell phones. During a power outage, the facility’s phone system will likely be inoperable; however, cell service may continue to operate normally. Having cellular communications capabilities will keep staff in contact with the outside world and may be a valuable tool in summoning any emergency assistance as needed.

Pre-determining critical systems and functions is another key step. In the event that portable generators are needed in an extended outage (or if the facility does not have its own backup generator) is critical to know how the portable power will be prioritied. Which systems need them the most? Can generator use be rotated among systems? Portable gasoline-powered generators are valuable tools, but they have their limitations. Plan their use judiciously.

Food safety is another critical concern. If the power is out for less than four hours, then the food in the refrigerator and freezer should remain safe to consume. While the power is out, keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep food cold for longer.

If the power is out for more than four hours:


Steve Wilder


Steve Wilder



Steve Wilder, CHSP, STS, is president and chief operating officer of...