Instant hospital aims to meet bioterror surge

Portable hospitals from the ground up

From a large-scale bioterror attack to extreme natural disasters, we’re constantly reminded of looming safety threats and the U.S. infrastructure’s need to respond. And perhaps no industry has taken the threat more seriously than health care.

Doing its part, Blu-Med Response Systems in Kirkland, WA, has developed an advanced-care instant hospital structure that can be quickly deployed at various sites in the event of a large-scale disaster or bioterror attack exceeding a hospital’s normal surge capacity.

Blu-Med is a division of Alaska Structures of Seattle, which has 25 years of experience developing similar structures for military use. The U.S. military currently uses the company’s portable hospital buildings throughout the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait.

"These shelters have really served the military well as portable hospitals, and people have wanted to know if we would make a civilian model of that," says Gerrit Boyle, executive vice president for Blu-Med and Alaska Structures. "We have taken the proven concepts for military use and adapted them for homeland security and other disaster-response scenarios."

Each hospital complex is composed of six interconnected shelters to create a 50-bed, 4,000-square-foot facility. The structures are Quonset hut-shaped, with a lightweight aluminum frame, and covered with a tension vinyl cover system. The units come complete with floors, windows, doors, heat, and air conditioning and electrical systems. To differentiate the civilian model from military applications, the buildings have been altered slightly to come in bright safety colors, such as a combination of blue, white, and orange.

The first organization to purchase one of these temporary hospitals was the Nevada Hospital Association (NHA) in Reno, which recently conducted the first assembly demonstration of its new system.

The association has purchased multiple units, according to Christopher Lake, PhD, director of hospital preparedness for NHA.

He says components for these instant hospitals would be stored with the air-conditioning units, hardware, and electrical equipment in a warehouse in a rapidly deployable manner.

"Essentially, if a disaster was declared, and it was recognized as a biological terrorism event where hospitals needed immediate surge capacity capabilities, we will be able to get these facilities anywhere in the state of Nevada, on the ground, set up and operational, with personnel and equipment in 24 hours," Lake explains.

The units can be configured to fit different needs, including triage, emergency department, surgery, intensive care, and other isolation requirements. He says the warehouses are geographically located so the temporary facilities can be deployed anywhere in Nevada in five or six hours. "The concept really is a 50-bed hospital, where and when [it is] needed," Lake adds.

The recent demonstration was the first test to see how long it would take to assemble one of the structures, with all components, using an uninitiated crew of people. "We needed a facility that was very easy to set up because you never know who will be available in a disaster," he explains. Lake said response from medical personnel has been very positive.

"One of the concepts with any event — pandemic disease, bioterrorism, nuclear explosion or natural event — is these patients are going to be long-term," he says, explaining why NHA chose the Blu-Med system as opposed to other alternatives. "We needed something for large numbers of patients who will not be able to be simply treated and then moved."

The No. 1 factor was that the facility needed to be able to last, Lake says. "We needed surge capacity not for two, three, or four days. We needed it for months or a year."

A nonmilitary look and feel also was important, because the public must know where the facilities are and how to reach them, he adds. In addition, because the structures have been tested for fire, heat, snow, wind, and other extreme weather, they can provide a controlled, clean environment.

"We looked all over — including other structures such as tractor-trailers and basic tents," Lake says. "This is a better long-term solution."

Boyle said Blu-Med is in the process of talking to other states and hospital associations about its new product. Each basic 50-bed unit — configured similarly to Nevada’s — costs roughly $350,000. And Blue-Med is able to accommodate clients, based on need, such as the level of equipment required, medical supplies, and other hardware, he adds.

Nevada’s program is supported through funding from the National Hospital Bioterrorism Preparedness Program.