January 13, 2009

Preparing To Be Powerless

A power outage can mean more than just the lights going out for millions of Americans who rely on electricity to power their life-supporting home medical equipment.

For example, ice destroyed electric lines in Epping, N.H., last month, and police found 60-year-old Richard Lapoint dead, hooked to his powerless oxygen machine.

Rescue crews claim they did not know he was power-dependent.

In September, a generator and a stack of batteries couldn't keep up with 17 year old Gatlan Graham's ventilator and other life-supporting equipment when Hurricane Ike knocked out power to his Houston home for two weeks. His family spent more than $1,500 to keep Graham alive.

Experts say its an issue that sneaked up on emergency officials as better medical treatments over the past decade have helped more critically ill people move out of nursing homes.

A survey found huge state-to-state variations in utilities '"medical priority lists" designed to track who depends on power for life, suggesting only a fraction of patients know they're available.

The biggest utilities in Illinois together report only 10,000 patients on critical-care lists; neighboring Indiana's biggest list carries just 2,000 names.

Dr. David Prezant, chief medical officer for the New York City Fire Department, is pushing for medical registries of the power-dependent.

He said, "When there's a blackout, citywide, nationwide, we are really unprepared with any structured database, knowledge of who these people are and where they are."

However, emergency registries are starting to form.

A pilot project in northwest Ohio is giving cards to life-support users to hang in their windows during a flood or tornado, signaling to rescuers if they need help.

San Diego Gas & Electric says it recently met individually with 700 known power-dependent customers to discuss emergency plans for outages

In contrast, this is the advice from Idaho's Public Utilities Commission: "If someone has a power requirement for life and health, the individual is responsible for coming up with their own backup plans."

"It's incumbent upon us over the next 4 1/2 months, before we get into hurricane season again, to have a better plan than we had going into Ike," said Terry Moore, Houston's deputy emergency management coordinator.