(Article first appeared in RWJ Breakthroughs, Spring, 2013)
Almost ten days before Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, unleashing historic devastation along the coast and inland, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital’s (RWJUH) Emergency Preparedness team was closely monitoring computer weather models and dispatches from the National Weather Service which contained ominous warnings of a potential storm.
“As the forecast became clear, we knew we had to warn hospital leadership to be prepared for the worst,” explains Louis Sasso, MBA, MICP, Director of Emergency Preparedness for RWJUH.
With 600 beds, thousands of Emergency Department patients each year and more than 4,630 employees, RWJUH is a major academic medical center that often resembles a small city.
During a historic natural disaster like Sandy, the trick for Mr. Sasso and hospital leadership is to keep that city humming through the entire storm and its aftermath so patients continue to receive outstanding, seamless care.
The first step was to assemble a core group of departments and individuals whose areas would be central to emergency operations during the storm. These areas included Nursing, Materials Management to ensure adequate supplies through the duration of the event, Engineering which would keep the hospital running on back-up generators in the event of a power loss, Environmental Services to make arrangements for employees to stay overnight and Public Relations to keep employees, patients and the public informed about hospital operations through social media, general media, electronic and paper communications.
The hospital contacted vendors to make sure there would be adequate supplies such as linens, extra water and food throughout the storm and during its immediate aftermath. Engineering made sure enough fuel was available to power the hospital’s back-up generators.
Unlike many hospitals in the tri-state area, RWJUH’s Engineering Department added a third layer of support for operations when it brought in additional mobile generators from Foley Caterpillar. The generators arrived on Saturday and were connected by Sunday prior to Sandy’s arrival.
Extra generators ensured that RWJUH remained on full-power until normal power was restored two days after the storm. RWJUH also loaned the City of New Brunswick a generator and part of its Engineering staff to support the water department treatment plant, which had lost power during the storm. The extra support allowed the city to maintain adequate water pressure, a critical piece to keeping the city’s hospitals and essential services functioning.
Having enough staff to maintain operations was never an issue, according to Mr. Sasso, as nearly 400 employees stayed at the hospital over several nights to care for patients. Rotating shifts staffed the Hospital Command Center around-the-clock for five straight days to ensure appropriate staffing and address other problems.
“I’m consistently impressed how our people always pull together when there is a true emergency,” Mr. Sasso says.
Mr. Sasso credits constant emergency preparedness efforts with helping the hospital weather the storm.
“The constant planning, training, exercises and taking advantage of state and federal emergency preparedness grants helped us be well-prepared for anything that could have gone wrong,” he says.
[Note: MGIC personnel sat through the storm with staff at RWJ assisting where needed. In addition to the issues with PSE&G, cell phone disruptions were caused by limited generator fuel supplies at cell towers. Fuel delivery was also a problem in some locations when fuel suppliers could not pump fuel from storage tanks. These facts have stimulated conversations with cell tower owners, local gas stations, water companies and fuel suppliers. In one case a hospital is purchasing tankers and leasing to fuel supplier with the understanding that tankers will be returned to hospital, with fuel, if needed in emergency. Local gas stations have also pledged their diesel fuel. A lot of planning “outside the box” is taking place.]