Hospitals respond to earthquake readiness survey

Hospital workers evacuate a patient from NYU Langone Medical Center during Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29, in New York City.

Photo Credit: Michael Heiman/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.

In a marked turnaround from a prior survey, more than 90 percent of California’s hospitals have provided key information sought by state and federal officials about their preparedness for earthquakes and other disasters.

The Los Angeles Daily News reported last year that only 50 percent to 60 percent of hospitals in Southern California had returned a 2011 survey. The poor showing had sparked dismay among government planners, who wanted the data on hand to help rescue teams keep hospitals open after a disaster.

The region got a good taste of disaster impact 20 years ago when the magnitude-6.7 Northridge Earthquake killed 57 people, injured 9,000 and damaged nine hospitals so severely that they were unusable.

New worries surfaced after a 5.1-magnitude earthquake struck La Habra, in northwest Orange County, on March 28.

Some hospitals felt the 2011 questionnaire was too detailed, and others said they never received it.

The new survey, covering nearly the entire state, has won much wider acceptance. For example, Kaiser Permanente, California’s largest hospital owner and operator, had declined to take part in the first survey. This time, all 35 Kaiser hospitals participated.

In all, nearly 330 of the 350 California general acute care hospitals that were part of the survey completed the questionnaire, others answered some questions and fewer than 10 did not respond, officials at the Sacramento-based California Hospital Association said last week. “We are ecstatic. It’s probably one of the best response rates we’ve gotten on a survey,” said Cheri Hummel, vice president of disaster preparedness at the association, which helped spearhead the new survey.

Hospitals in shaking zones

Map of hospitals in shaking zones.

Once all data are analyzed, she said, the association will give the results to federal and state emergency agencies.

Most survey questions focused on emergency generators.

California law requires hospitals to have working back-up generators and on-site fuel to power them for at least 24 hours. That is meant to guarantee that key equipment — not just the lights, but respirators, monitors and diagnostic machines — will keep working.

Back-up generators aren’t always reliable. After Superstorm Sandy slammed New York City in 2012, for instance, patients had to be evacuated from several major hospitals when generators failed.

“In a large disaster, there are a lot of patients to move, and you just can’t evacuate every hospital because they’ve lost their utilities,” said Dr. Howard Backer, director of the California Emergency Medical Services Authority.

If government agencies have data from hospitals in advance, they can move more swiftly after a disaster to rush the correct generators and fuel to hospitals that need them, Backer said.


The survey also asked hospitals about the amount of water they use, capacity of water tanks, and details about their helipads and emergency communications.

“We need to keep the facilities running and keep the communities intact,” said Jerold Fenner, regional emergency coordinator for the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Fenner and Backer praised the hospital association for assuaging hospitals’ concerns and boosting the survey returns.

Earthquake scientists have long warned that a massive earthquake in the Los Angeles area could damage or shut down scores of hospitals at a time when they would be called on to treat earthquake victims as well as existing patients.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Alcorn, For the LA Times, January 17, 1994

To get a better grip on vulnerabilities, federal and state agencies designed a survey that they sent to 200 Southern California hospitals in early 2011. Some hospitals balked because they worried that the information would be provided to regulators. Others thought the questions were poorly worded. Officials with the California Hospital Association said they were not invited to take part until halfway through the planning.

When that survey stalled, the association offered to take the lead for a new survey, this time involving nearly all hospitals in the state. San Diego County facilities were not included since they had already started their own survey independently.

Kaiser Permanente helped plan the new survey, in part because of its concerns over the 2011 effort, said spokeswoman Kate Wathen.

The survey “has resulted in what will be a valuable database should the worst occur,” Wathen said.

Some hospitals initially asked that government agencies keep their data secret, so as not to release details about their equipment and preparedness. But in time, members of the working group acknowledged that most of those details are already available in public documents, Backer said.

“They came around to the idea that this isn’t really top-secret, classified information,” Backer said.

Hospital Diesel Generator and Water Storage Survey.pdf

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