What happens when the lights go out?
Most hospitals don't like to talk about power outages because, in theory, they should never occur. Even if an organization loses electrical power, backup generators are at hand to keep the lights on and patients safe.
But keeping the power running is a full-time job even at systems like Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center that contains "levels of redundancy that most hospitals don't have," including a co-generator that provides power along with the power grid, said Val Padilla, director of facilities for the UCLA Health system. As winter approaches, Padilla offers up some things hospitals can keep in mind when it comes to ensuring the power stays on even when systems go down.
At most hospitals, if the main utility power fails, hospitals have generators to supply the building's power needs. Throughout the hospitals are monitoring points that track power levels. These points are fitted with transfer switches that signal the generators to start up and provide power if the levels at any of those points drop too low.
This generated power is provided to specific loads when an outage occurs. Important loads are targeted areas, typically defined by how the power is used and the levels of criticality. At UCLA, their highest level is life safety. This load goes toward things including the fire alarm, emergency lighting and fire pumps that work the sprinkler systems.
The second level of importance is power critical to sustain clinical applications. This includes emergency receptacles in patient care areas, the main data center for the electronic medical records, emergency rooms, operating rooms and other areas that are critical to patient care.
The third power load goes toward things like air conditioning pumps or hot water re-circulation. These are areas that are not a matter of life and death, but would make providing care uncomfortable or inconvenient. Aiming power at these graded systems creates the ability to discard less critical loads if a generator fails or can't sustain the full load during an outage.
Perhaps the biggest challenge during a power loss is the loss of a generator. This can be particularly problematic for small hospitals that may only have one or two backup generators to carry the entire load.
In Santa Monica, there are two 1,250-kilowatt backup generators. To make sure they are able to run if there is a power outage, the organization ensures its connected emergency power load doesn't exceed more than 80% of the capacity of one of the generators. The organization is able to run emergency power on just one generator and keep the load low enough that it doesn't slow the generator down.
Practice makes perfect
Regular exercise is as important for power systems as it is for people. Padilla said the emergency power system is the one part of any hospital that should be tested and exercised exhaustively. Transferring loads can make sure that power is going where it should and that the switches are being maintained.
"This does a couple of things," he said. "It reinforces familiarity for those that service and respond to power outages so they innately know how to respond to troubles and it makes sure things are operating correctly."
Padilla said UCLA, and many other hospitals, provide emergency scenarios to their executives long before problems like power or plumbing failures occur. He provides them with information regarding potential operational impacts so they will be able to reach out to necessary departments to alert them and support their needs.