JCAHO warns about risk of generator failure

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations recently issued a Sentinel Event Alert that urges health care organizations to pay special attention to how emergency power systems can fail and recommends specific steps to keep patients safe when the electrical power supply is out.

Reports from the 2001 floods in Houston, the 2003 blackout in the Northeast, and hurricanes that have hammered the Southeast over the past two years show how severely clinical operations can be affected in health care organizations that lose their electrical power," the Joint Commission says. In a statement accompanying the Alert, Joint Commission president Dennis O'Leary, MD, notes that health care facilities are highly dependent upon reliable electrical power; but recent experiences show that emergency power systems are not always sufficient during a major catastrophe."

In addition to the warning, the Joint Commission is adding a new requirement in 2007 that organizations test emergency generators at least once every 36 months for a minimum of four continuous hours. Facilities already must test their generators 12 times a year for 30 minutes. If a test fails, the organization must immediately implement stop-gap measures until a permanent fix can be put into place. (For the Alert, go to www.jointcommission.org. Under Sentinel Events," select Sentinel Event Alert." Then click on Issue 37 — September 6, 2006: Preventing adverse events caused by emergency electrical power system failures.")

The Joint Commission cautions that compliance with minimum National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes is not enough to ensure the safety of patients and their care during an emergency situation.

To reduce risks to patients created by power failures, the Joint Commission recommends that health care organizations take these steps:

  • Match the critical equipment and systems needed in an extended emergency against the equipment and systems actually on the emergency power system.
  • Inventory emergency power systems and the loads they serve.
  • Provide training for and test the staff who operate and maintain the emergency power supply system.
  • Ensure that generator fuel is available and usable.
  • Ensure that the organization management and clinical leaders know how long emergency power will be available and what locations within the facility will not have emergency power in the event of an electrical outage.
  • Establish contingency plans for doctors and other caregivers to follow during losses of electrical power.