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Massive generators kept hospitals going during last year’s windstorm

Facilities manager Ben Myers looks at one of the 13 giant diesel generators that automatically switched on at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center during the November 2015 windstorm. Each machine, using a V-16 engine, can produce 1,250 kilowatts of power. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Facilities manager Ben Myers looks at one of the 13 giant diesel generators that automatically switched on at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center during the November 2015 windstorm. Each machine, using a V-16 engine, can produce 1,250 kilowatts of power. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Around 1 p.m. the day of last year’s destructive windstorm, the facilities crew at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center held a meeting to prepare.

County emergency managers were asking businesses to consider closing early as forecasters predicted a damaging storm on the way.

Those in the meeting looked out the window overlooking the city from the hospital’s fourth floor and didn’t see much of a breeze.

Ben Myers, the hospital’s facilities manager, remembers someone asking, “What windstorm?”

The question was soon answered when the wind knocked out power at the hospital for its longest outage in memory.

Myers was named the facilities manager at Sacred Heart only a few months before.

“That’s a great way to learn a facility,” said Myers, who previously was the facility manager at Deaconess Hospital.

Myers said after going home for dinner, he came back to stay late, but the backup systems ran so smoothly that with his experienced staff, he didn’t have much to do that night but learn.

“All worked as designed,” Myers said.

Seven generators, each with 1,250 kilowatts of power, kicked on automatically at 3:20 p.m. Nov. 17. That’s when a tree toppled near Eighth Avenue and Cowley Street, slicing power to the hospital, Myers said. Avista Utilities officials say damage to the substation that feeds electricity to Sacred Heart and surrounding areas also likely contributed to the outage.

Together, the seven diesel-powered generators made by Cummins have nearly the same capacity as the Monroe Street dam downtown. They initially powered the critical functions at the hospital, but officials soon decided to power the rest of the hospital, too.

Even so, after about an hour on the generators, one of the seven machines shut down, causing immediate unease among the facilities crew, Myers said. They soon determined that the system purposely turned off the generator because the hospital’s load didn’t need it. The hospital’s boilers are powered by natural gas and continued operating normally during the outage.

As a precaution, Sacred Heart canceled elective surgeries the afternoon of the windstorm.

Sacred Heart also ran six other 1,250-kilowatt generators to power its doctors building and other facilities on campus during the outage.

Avista restored electricity to the complex at 8 a.m. on Nov. 18 – after 16 hours and 40 minutes on generators. In that time, Sacred Heart burned 5,063 gallons of diesel at a cost of just under $10,000 in its 14 generators (13 on Sacred Heart’s campus and one at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute). The medical center is prepared for a much longer outage and maintains nearly 50,000 gallons of diesel on site in three tanks.

Code requires that hospitals experience no more than a 10-second gap of power in the event of an outage. To make sure they meet that standard, local hospitals say they test their generators monthly and perform more extensive tests annually.

Many in the hospital at the time of the outage may not have even noticed a flicker, though the brief outage did damage some nonessential computers. Myers said the hospital lost about 100 hard drives even though they were on surge protectors.

Sacred Heart wasn’t the only hospital that relied on generators in the aftermath of the windstorm.

Providence Holy Family Hospital in north Spokane did not lose electricity but switched to generator power to protect equipment from surges, Myers said.

The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in north Spokane used its generators for four hours when it lost power, said hospital spokesman Bret Bowers.

At Shriners Hospital for Children - Spokane, the generator was fired up early in the afternoon to warm it up. The hospital lost power about 90 minutes later for about 10 minutes. Employees noticed the lights blink, but the switch to the generator was smooth, said Keith Rogers, Shriners facility manager.

“It was a very easy power outage,” he said.

Across the street at Deaconess Hospital, the facilities staff switched the power to its generators as a precaution to prevent any interruptions, said Queena Liufau, spokeswoman for the Rockwood Health System, which operates Deaconess. The hospital didn’t lose power, but coincidentally, some parts of the campus that have no patients lost electricity for about 10 minutes as a result of an internal issue unrelated to the windstorm, Liufau said.

Rockwood’s other hospital, Valley Hospital, also switched its power source to its generators but never lost electricity, Liufau said.

Kootenai Health experienced only a couple of flickers and opted not to switch power to its generators, said Dave Fawcett, facilities manager.

“We were very lucky,” Fawcett said. “Everything else around us seemed to drop off.”

Though power wasn’t lost, the hospital did experience windstorm damage. Panels on the side of the building detached from the building and six patients had to be moved away from windows for fear that the panels could shatter them. The panels were secured in time, Fawcett said.

Kootenai Health has two 1,000-kilowatt generators powered by diesel. Either could run the facility on its own, Fawcett said.

Avista spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst said that after the windstorm, Avista’s priority was to restore substations and transmission lines, not necessarily to restore specific customers, even hospitals.

The utility maintains a list of “critical” customers, like hospitals and nursing homes, “but that list is not prioritized,” Wuerst said.


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