Power fails at Providence hospitals

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In the Providence Sunday Journal 1/23/2000

Officials say no patients were in danger during the incident at Rhode Island, Hasbro Children's, and Women & Infants Hospitals.


PROVIDENCE -- A power failure yesterday afternoon forced Rhode Island Hospital, Hasbro Children's Hospital and Women & Infants Hospital to rely on backup generators for as long as two hours, shutting down non-essential equipment and lights.

The problem, which began about 12:15 p.m., came four months after a blackout at Rhode Island Hospital that left one man dead and raised serious questions about the reliability of the hospital's electrical system.

Lifespan, the hospital's parent company, has commissioned an in-depth review of the September incident. But while the review is completed, Lifespan President George A. Vecchione said, the hospital has taken several steps that prevented yesterday's power failure from doing any serious damage.

``Our systems performed exactly as they were designed, and we were quite pleased with them, actually,'' Vecchione said.

None of the 565 patients at Rhode Island and Hasbro were in danger, including a woman who was undergoing surgery on her hand, said Edward Shottland, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Lifespan.

Richard H. Kennedy, vice president for operations at Women & Infants, said no problems were reported there, either. Women & Infants is part of a separate chain, Care New England, but gets its power through Rhode Island Hospital.

The details of yesterday's incident remain unclear, and accounts of the impact of the power failure differ.

Vecchione said that shortly after noon, one of the two lines that feed power from Narragansett Electric into the hospital went down. The lights flickered, and the power on the hospital campus went out for a few seconds.

At the time, the hospital was generating 70 to 75 percent of its own power and drawing the remainder from the utility company's feed, according to Joseph S. Piechocki, vice president for support services.

In addition to its main generator, the hospital has two backup generators -- one it bought after a power failure in 1989, another that was installed this fall, after the Sept. 17 blackout.

The system is set up so that anytime even a slight interruption in the power feed is sensed, the emergency generators kick in to boost the main generator and enable it to keep the hospital going, Vecchione said.

``In most of the buildings, the power was fully restored within just a few seconds,'' Vecchione said. Because the main generator needs some time to go from producing 70 percent to 100 percent of the needed power, service was restored in phases, he said.

``We have the ability to make sure that the most critical areas of the hospital receive the power first,'' he said. ``It's like a tree -- then it expands to the other areas.''

Power was not restored immediately to the Davol Building, however, which houses the emergency room and the operating room. The emergency generators powered the essential equipment and some lights.

``I believe there was a piece that failed that had to be manually overriden, and that manual override took some time,'' Vecchione said. ``It took about 30 minutes to restore power there.''

A Journal reporter who visited the emergency room about 1 p.m. found many overhead lights were off, and the electric doors had to be opened manually. But by 1:15, full power was restored, and the doors worked automatically again.

One hospital employee who spoke to The Journal on the condition of anonymity said some equipment in the main Rhode Island Hospital building did not come back on-line for as long as two hours.

The Journal reporter found some elevators there were not working as late as 3 p.m.

At Women & Infants, spokeswoman May Kearnan said that facility had relied on emergency power for about two hours, with its lights dimmed and non-essential equipment shut off.

After being contacted by Lifespan officials, Kennedy, the vice president for operations at Women & Infants, said the hospital had used its emergency generator for two hours as a precaution, but that his understanding was that a full power feed from Narragansett Electric had been available within an hour.

``We wait in a very conservative mode so that we don't overtax the whole system by suddenly coming back to full power ourselves,'' Kennedy said.

Asked what had caused the power failure, Vecchione replied, ``At this time, all we know is that it was an external event. We don't know the specifics of that.''

Michael F. Ryan, spokesman for Narragansett Electric, said he was not aware of any problems at the Franklin Square power station, which serves Rhode Island Hospital. To his knowledge, he said, ``something on their side of the fence caused the fault that resulted in our line being temporarily disabled.''

Ryan said that theory was supported by the fact that the second line, which can supply power for the entire hospital campus, could not be tapped when the other one failed, even though it was active and working.

Vecchione countered that the hospital could have tapped the second line, but did not.

The power failure tripped an alarm at the Providence Fire Department, and within two minutes, fire trucks were outside the hospital, ready to supply power to the most important areas, as they did after Tropical Storm Floyd.

Fire Chief James Rattigan said hospital administrators had requested electrical power both for the emergency room and trauma unit on the first floor and an operating room on the third floor..

All of the department's trucks are equipped with either 8,000 watt or 5,000 watt portable generators, Rattigan said. As soon as the request was made, he said, crews struck up electrical cords to the affected rooms, snaking one through a door and another through a window.

Later, also at Rhode Island Hospital's request, another portable feed was set up for the hospital's bone donor and bone marrow rooms on the third floor, Rattigan said.

For much of the afternoon, the hospital's main lobby served as a command central, where Rattigan, joined by Public Safety Commissioner John J. Partington and other fire officials, monitored the day's progress on portable phones.

About 2:15 p.m., convinced that the hospital's generators could supply all the needed power, Rattigan began sending the trucks away.

Asked last night about the Fire Department's role, a Lifespan spokeswoman said none of the trucks' power had been needed.

At the state Department of Health, assistant director Robert J. Marshal Jr. said it was too early to draw any conclusions about yesterday's incident, but that the Office of Facilities Regulation would be investigating.

``We've been in touch with the hospital and we sent staff to the site to gather information,'' Marshall said. ``We plan to follow up on this next week.'' So far, he added, ``the situation seems to be under control.''

Barbara Crosby, secretary of the nurses' union at Hasbro Children's Hospital, wasn't working yesterday, but she said any power failure like that ``compromises your work environment.''

``You count on your lights working and your phones working, and when that doesn't happen, it sort of shakes your confidence in everything that you're trying to do,'' Crosby said. ``We're already trying to juggle more with less, as is everybody in health care, and this is just one more thing.''

Visitors at the hospital were also a bit unnerved.

Barbara and Richard Rathbun, of Cranston, arrived at Hasbro Hospital expecting a quiet visit with their young grandchild and found firefighters and security guards in cars with yellow lights flashing.

``I have a four-month-old grandson in there, and I saw all that and said, `What's going on?' '' Barbara Rathbun said.

Shottland said that an interruption in electrical power to a hospital may seem like an unusual event, but in fact, he said, ``this is something that happens to hospitals all the time.''

-- With staff reports from G. Wayne Miller and Jennifer Levitz.

-- David Floyd (dantien@worldnet.att.net), January 23, 2000

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