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What we learned from a power shutdown.

A vendor saved them this time. They're trying to prevent a "next time"

The Washington County Health Center in Chartiers Township, PA, outside of Pittsburgh, has been successfully caring for the elderly since 1977. A division of the county government, the 120,000-square-foot, 250-person facility has prided itself on being able to follow through on its promise to provide its residents with the best possible care.

One of the most important aspects of any health care center is, of course, its kitchen. So when an equipment malfunction shut down the power to our center's kitchen last year, the facility was in dire need of immediate help. Fortunately, this time, it was available.

The Problem

It was clear that on-site repair of our 480-volt AKD switchgear was needed, but nobody could figure out the problem. This was a major emergency. We're a licensed nursing home for elderly and infirm people who need ongoing medical care. Many are on specialty diets and without the complement of proper nutrition, the effects of their medication can become excessively potent. In short, we had to solve the problem before the next day.

The AKD switchgear is electrical distribution equipment which houses and controls a number of feeder breakers. As the protective devices on the breakers age, their gaskets and seals can dry out and malfunction. The result can be a loss of power in the entire facility or any particular area affected by the breakdown.

"Depending on their age, it can sometimes be difficult to find parts for obsolete equipment," according to David Anderson, senior power delivery engineer at General Electric's Installation & Service Engineering (I&SE) office in Pittsburgh (and one of our eventual saviors in this matter). "Even if the switchgear is not that old, it can be worn out prematurely due to how it is used or the environment it's in."

In this instance, the AKD switchgear serves as the one power distribution source for the entire Washington County Health Center. Though the center is equipped with an emergency power system, it is not capable of covering the entire building.

The power was out in the kitchen for several hours. If the electricity was not restored, our only alternative would have been to serve an emergency meal or cold plate. But those don't really meet our residents' needs, because emergency meals don't provide the same nutritional value.

Nor was it feasible to consider importing 750 meals, especially with so many specialized diets. We don't have any agreements with nearby hospitals, schools or other agencies. Besides, they have their own internal operations, and packaging and transportation would be a problem. A further consideration: Mealtime is one of the highlights of the day for the residents, but because they don't really have big appetites, they won't eat the food if they don't like it.

The Solution

As it turned out, the breaker, which had not been serviced since the center opened, was tripped and was frozen in place and could not be reset. Despite the efforts of our in-house maintenance staff, the switchgear still could not be repaired.

Initially thinking the machinery needed to be replaced, and realizing that it was a piece of GE equipment, we immediately called the GE Business Information Center. GEBIC is a toll-free telephone service that links business customers with GE Program Directors, who assist in locating specific technical, industrial and commercial solutions from within GE's network of resources. In our case, Program Director Steve McKinlay immediately referred us to Installation & Service Engineering. The field service engineer arrived that same day, identified what had to be done and resolved it quickly. Then he explained what needed to be done to prevent this from happening again.

The problem was that the entire panel of circuit breakers had not been manually operated -- switched on and off -- since the health center opened 16 years before, and the gear subsequently corroded and needed professional repairs.

Power was restored that day, and GEBIC followed up with a phone call to make sure we were satisfied. And the next day a GE engineer, Joe Losko, stopped by on his own time to make sure everything was still working fine.

Take Precautions

We were grateful for our good fortune in having such service available, but learned that it is better not to take too much for granted when it comes to building upkeep. Situations such as power outages and bad weather storms can always leave you facing the unexpected. It is especially important to monitor all operations in a nursing home because residents tend to be extremely sensitive to their surroundings. Any loss of heat during the colder months or loss of water can create a major crisis, and as we learned, loss of electricity can be a major threat.

Though we have an emergency power source, it does not feed every outlet throughout the facility. Instead, emergency power runs to locations considered top priority areas, such as electrically operated oxygen concentrators or patient care areas housing those who require intravenous medication or nourishment. We are now looking into broader emergency power backup through either replacing a generator or adding one.

We are taking this one step further and investigating emergency backup for our natural gas systems serving the laundry and common areas. We are also keeping close tabs on our power suppliers and equipment vendors in these areas and the emergency services they provide. It is better to be aware of your resources ahead of time.

Still, one can't think of everything. Recently a power company accidentally cut through all of our phone lines and knocked out every phone in the facility, including pay phones. Thank God for cellular phones!

Barry Parks, Ed.D., NHA has been Administrator of the Washington County Health Center, Chartiers Township, PA, since 1984. The GEBIC service referred to can be accessed at 1-800-626-2004.
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Author:Parks, Barry
Publication:Nursing Homes
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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