NY Labs Had Unique Problems During August Power Outage

Traffic disruptions, inability to gas courier cars prove toughest challenges during blackout

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WHEN THE POWER OUTAGE on August 14 hit states from New York to Michigan, the crisis plans of laboratories throughout the region were put to the test.

For the most part, laboratories across this region were prepared and continued to deliver the most critical testing services. Even where operations were disrupted, once power was restored, most labs worked through the backlog within hours.

In executing their crisis plans during the power outage, unanticipated consequences revealed vulnerabilities. In the New York City area, the power outage had a particularly devastating effect on regular courier and logistics activities.

The experience of New York labs during this recent blackout demonstrates the challenges of preparing, in advance, emergency plans that anticipate the full range of disruptive events during a crisis. In particular, it was just two years ago that laboratories in this area had to cope with the impact of the terrorist attack on 9/11 and its aftermath. Following this event, labs in the New York City area revised their logistics plans.

Not surprisingly, the August 14 blackout introduced new variables. Among them was traffic congestion as people walked home, traffic lights that were inoperable, and the inability to fuel vehicles during their routes, since gas stations lacked power.

Two labs in Greater New York City shared their experiences with THE DARK REPORT. On Long Island, most of the courier fleet operated by Sunrise Medical Laboratories, Inc. was in the process of completing afternoon pick-ups and heading back to the lab when the blackout hit just after 4:00 p.m. EDT.

“At our main lab, the generator kicked in immediately and we kept right on going,” stated Larry Siedlick, CEO of Sunrise Medical Laboratories. “With the fuel we keep on site, we can run on our own for quite some time. Our most pressing problem was getting gasoline for the courier cars in our fleet. The blackout started at a time when many of our cars had been on the road for several hours already and would be refueled later in the evening.

Continued Efforts

“Our response was to reschedule courier stops based on vehicles that had adequate fuel to cover their route and parts of others,” explained Siedlick. “While power was out that evening, we managed to get to 75% of our stops.

“Power was restored on our locality by 5:00 a.m. on Friday. We had staff waiting at ready to refuel our courier cars. The cars were refueled and on the road by 6 a.m. to pick up missed stops. By 10 a.m., all of these specimens were in our laboratory. As part of our emergency planning, we had additional staff in the lab. By 2 p.m. all of this work was completed and results had been reported.”

Across the Hudson River from New York City, Bio-Reference Laboratories, Inc. (BRLI) turned the generators on in its main lab facility and laboratory operations continued without much incident. However, because its service area covers six states and goes as far south as Washington, DC, it faced more complex problems.

“In contrast to the smooth response in our central lab, our network of 160 full and part-time couriers had major challenges,” stated Marc Grodman, M.D., Chairman and CEO of BRLI, located in Elmwood Park, New Jersey. “Throughout the New York and New Jersey areas, the lack of traffic lights, the failure of the cell phone network, and the disruption of normal train and subway schedules created chaos on the roads.

Maintaining Service

“We developed an ad hoc contingency plan to deal with these circumstances,” he noted. “Couriers did routes on foot, used land-line based telephones where possible, and reached every client location that was accessible.

“Because gas stations did not have electricity and couldn’t pump gas, BRLI sent vehicles out with gas containers to refuel courier vehicles that were on long routes, allowing them to complete their runs and get back to the laboratory.

“By 7:00 p.m. on Thursday night some areas of New Jersey were getting power back,” noted Grodman. “Throughout the night our logistics department responded to maintain the flow of specimens into the laboratory. Specimens were picked up from every provider and, by mid-morning on Friday, test results were reported out on virtually all the prior day’s work.”

Labs in Western NY Fare Much Better

IN WESTERN NEW YORK, the power outage did not last as long as in Michigan, Ontario, Canada, and New York City. Most laboratories reported few problems in transitioning to emergency operations.

“In our central laboratory, the switch-over to emergency power went without incident,” stated Jack Finn, CEO of Centrex Laboratories, located in New Hartford, New York. “About 60% of our equipment remained operational. Because air conditioning is not on the emergency power system, we had to rotate use of our instruments.

“Power was restored around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday. We had all our work caught up by the next morning,” he noted. “It’s an amazing thing to see the lab staff pull out all the stops during a crisis like this. Everyone worked together and our emergency plan handled just about all the circumstances of this power blackout.”

In the Syracuse area, Laboratory Alliance of New York also took the blackout in stride. “Our lab system serves three hospitals with 1,400 beds,” noted Frank Kearns, CEO. “The power in all labs was out as long as six hours. Critical testing was maintained throughout this episode and all testing was current by the next morning.”

The blackout did expose some overlooked issues in emergency planning. “In recent years, we had remodeled our building and moved sections of the lab,” Kearns said. “But we had not reassessed our emergency power assignments in the remodeled areas. Thus, we learned that some locations did not have emergency power outlets in the right places after the remodel. The pump that serves our de-ionizer was not on emergency power.”

There was another practical lesson. Kearns noted that “new employee orientation has just been expanded to include pointing out locations where flashlights and extension cords can be found.”

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