When Plumas District Hospital lost power during the early morning hours of Dec. 27, its backup generator failed to kick in and hospital administrators responded quickly to ensure that patient care wouldn’t be impacted.
JoDee Read, the hospital’s chief executive officer, and Darren Beatty, its chief operating officer, spoke about the event during an interview Dec. 29. They shared a timeline of the events and the steps they took to rectify the issue, which is ultimately going to require a new system that will come at a substantial cost.
When the power went out, eight patients were at PDH. Seven inpatients remained in the hospital safely without incident. One critical patient was transported to an emergency room in Reno, but the transfer was due to the serious nature of the patient’s illness, not the power outage, Read said.
Though the emergency room closed for several hours; emergency department nurses and a physician remained on site to perform patient triage. “If anything serious had come in, we would have been able to transport them to Reno,” Read said. But that wasn’t necessary; all patients who presented were able to be treated locally.
To ensure immediate medical services were available, the rural health clinic offered walk-in visits to any patient seeking medical care. Dr. Joey Schad and Laura Orange, an advanced medical provider, treated walk-ins as well as those who had appointments scheduled.
Read said that the two were able to handle the workload as many patients failed to show for their appointments or they rescheduled them due to the hazardous road conditions.
The outage also interrupted the hospital’s phone and internet service for several hours. Some patients sent emails, the only source of communication, to reschedule appointments.
By Monday afternoon, the PG&E power grid and the hospital’s main generator were back online. To ensure such a situation didn’t arise again, PG&E delivered two additional backup generators Monday evening to be available for tertiary backup power. If necessary one of the generators could be used to power the hospital, and the other the radiology equipment.
But what went wrong with the original generator?
Technicians report that the generator failure was caused by a damaged a water pump. Beatty explained that hospital backup generators undergo demanding preventive maintenance routines that include weekly visual checks, monthly 45-minute load testing, and an annual 4-hour load testing. Load testing is the process of putting demand on a generator to see how the system behaves during normal and high loads. Beatty said that just one week before the outage, on Dec. 19, the hospital’s generator passed a double inspection: a full 45-minute load test and a visual inspection. The damaged water pump mentioned above was reported to be in good condition in the report.
However, regardless of the generator’s meticulous maintenance records, Beatty said that it is nearing the end of its useful life, and the future is filled with electrical grid insecurity. “Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) and weather-related power grid interruptions are more common than ever before,” Beatty said.
The hospital’s administration is working to replace the generator system with one that includes built-in redundancy with multiple generators providing emergency power to the hospital. The California Department of Health Care Access and Information is prepared to assist with expediting this project as they have seen a common thread to facilities’ emergency generators failing due to the ever-changing environment that places a strain on emergency power systems.
“Our new normal, unfortunately, includes more frequent and lengthy power outages caused by extreme weather events. A new emergency power system with built-in redundancy is necessary to sustain operations in this rural part of the state. We must transform our facilities to meet the demand of today’s environment and beyond,” said Beatty.
When asked what that would cost, neither Beatty nor Read had an estimate. Beatty said he had contacted four electrical contractors to begin the process.
“Achieving a resolution to this issue is our highest priority,” said Read.