Fuse Melts, Cuts Power at DHMC; Work Ongoing to Restore Systems
Gail Dahlstrom, left, vice president of facilities management at DHMC, discusses Saturday’s power outage during an interview at the hospital. At right is Jim Alexander, emergency management coordinator for the hospital.
Valley News photographs — Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »
Thomas Trimarco, staff physician and co-director of the Emergency Department at Dartmouth-Hichcock Medical Center, talks about a situation that forced the hospital to divert non-critical patients earlier that morning during an interview at the hospital in Hanover on Saturday, September 21, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon — A melted fuse in an overheated power transformer knocked out electrical systems at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for several hours Saturday morning and took down a variety of other systems, from email to paging to the hospital’s website, for much of the day.
No one was injured and no patients were in danger, hospital spokesman Mike Barwell said. “The clinical staff was immediately able to care for all patients,” he said.
Backup generators provided power to critical facilities during the outage. Staff members relied on a backup pager system until the regular service returned.
Power was back on by about 9 a.m., and systems that depend on electricity, including patient records, data systems and email, were being restored throughout the day.
As of 6 p.m., the hospital intranet and paging systems were back up, but the electronic medical records system was in a “read only” mode. Staff members could access the records but were unable to order tests electronically.
Clinical equipment — such as that used to perform CT scans and MRI tests, along with emergency room equipment and air quality systems that depend on “clean power” — were still down last night after a backup system failed Saturday morning. All of the systems are expected to be up and running by today, Barwell said, and scheduled appointments and other community activities should continue as planned.
Hospital staff began noticing power outages early Saturday morning. The problem was traced to a melted fuse in the power transformer system, which handles electrical power coming into the hospital from the outside. An administrator called the Lebanon Fire Department, which responded at about 6:15 a.m.
Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said there was “a fair amount of smoke” in the hallway outside the mechanical room on Level Two, which is not a clinical area. Damage was limited to the electrical switch, Christopoulos said.
The ventilation system was shut down for a short time after an electrical odor spread to some parts of the hospital, including the birthing center. The fire department conducted air monitoring tests in the birthing unit but found nothing hazardous, he said.
Emergency personnel did not order any evacuations but hospital staff decided to move several patients because of the odor.
“Small electrical incidents like this are fairly common,” Christopoulos said. “It was a very small incident from our perspective, but very complex … for the hospital.”
It’s not yet clear why the backup clean power system failed or if that incident is related to the original outage, said Gail Dahlstrom, the hospital’s vice president of facilities management and incident commander for the event.
“We’re not sure yet what happened,” Dahlstrom said in an interview at the hospital Saturday afternoon. “This is a highly unusual circumstance.”
The impact of the incident was felt beyond the hospital’s Route 120 campus. Hanover resident Gurmeet Singh showed up at the new primary care facility on Heater Road for a blood test, part of his annual checkup, at about 8:30 Saturday morning.
When he arrived at Level 3, “there was absolutely nobody around,” he said Saturday afternoon. He then walked downstairs and found two employees who told him of the power outage and said the computer systems were not functioning.
Singh, who works in business continuity and disaster recovery for the insurer MetLife, said he was disappointed that the hospital did not do more to let incoming patients know about the problem. “What I expected is they should have a notice on the door,” he said. “That’s expected of a hospital of this caliber.”
Barwell apologized Saturday night for the difficulty some may have faced accessing hospital services during the outage.
“We were so focused on getting everything back up and running that we were not able to notify everyone in a timely matter,” he said. “We were more concerned at the time about patient safety and (restoring the systems). There was some inconvenience all the way around, but it certainly wasn’t intentional.”
The hospital was on “total diversion” status for several hours Saturday morning, meaning it was sending incoming patients to other hospitals and not accepting new patients. By noon, it had begun admitting patients with acute health threats, such as trauma or heart attacks, said Dr. Thomas Trimarco, the hospital’s medical director for emergency management. The emergency department remained open as usual.
The incident did not affect Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team helicopter services.
Without access to the electronic medical system, the staff wrote out orders and test results on paper, Trimarco said. The outage did not pose any significant issues “from a patient standpoint.”
“IT outages fall very high on our list of threats,” Trimarco said.
Last November, the hospital staged a drill that modeled conditions similar to Saturday’s incident.
Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210. Ernie Kohlsaat can be reached at 603-727-3302 or email@example.com.