Hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical distributors, and other parts of American healthcare face a quandary: When natural or manmade disasters make their services most vital, the infrastructure they depend on may collapse. Superstorm Sandy highlighted the danger of power outages to patient care. Today, the United States is at increasing risk of blackouts lasting much longer and covering a wider area, from cyberattacks, earthquakes and other events. These “black sky” events will disrupt electricity not only to hospitals and other facilities, but also to the water and wastewater systems that are just as critical to public health.
Last week, I considered these issues in an address to the Healthcare and Public Health Sector Joint Meeting, of the Critical Infrastructure Partnership Advisory Council (CIPAC). Here’s the gist of what I said:
First, it’s time to scale emergency power facilities and plans for long, widespread outages. During the Sandy blackout, the failure of the emergency power generators at the Langone Medical Center, as well as nursing homes and other facilities, highlighted the desperate need for secure, reliable emergency power systems. A growing number of healthcare facilities are installing generators and storing fuel on-site to serve their loads for 44 or 72 hours.
But in a genuine black sky event, emergency power systems will have to do for even longer periods. First, many emergency generators will burn out. Hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities should follow the guidelines of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on emergency power and expedite the installation of long-term backup generators for extended events or ensure that they can be rapidly installed when disaster strikes.
Second, the distribution of emergency fuel also constitutes an Achilles heel for healthcare during disasters. Too many hospitals and other facilities depend on a small number of suppliers who would be overwhelmed in a disaster by clients across numerous critical sectors. And in the wake of earthquakes, sophisticated cyberattacks on energy systems, and other black sky events, the pipelines, bridges and roads essential to deliver emergency fuel will be severely disrupted.
No state, regional or nationwide plans exist today to ensure that hospitals and other critical systems can and will receive fuel in such a badly disrupted environment. We need to develop those plans now.