Lessons Learned from Hurricane Irene
By Douglas Beigel, Chief Executive Officer
Hurricane Irene may finally be history, but for some labs, the hard part – cleaning up and resuming operations – has just begun.
The cost of the storm is presently estimated to be up to $10 billion, making it one of the top 10 costliest disasters in the nation’s history. It caused millions of power outages up and down the eastern seaboard, brought widespread flooding, and resulted in over 13,000 flights being cancelled.
I followed the storm situation closely as it unfolded, keeping in touch with members of my team by smartphone because many of us – myself included – had lost power. Obviously, I was generally concerned about the labs and patients impacted by the storm. But two special concerns were at the forefront of my mind.
First, I wanted to be sure that COLA was in a position to help our labs remain CLIA compliant. Fortunately, of the 294 labs scheduled for surveys during the month following the storm, only five appointments had to be canceled – and most of these were rescheduled immediately.
Second, I wanted to give our clients useful information that would assist their recovery activities. We therefore compiled a document containing these five must-remember tips for any lab dealing with the aftermath of Irene or any disruptive natural event of similar magnitude:
• Remove temperature-sensitive materials, including reagents, calibrators, or controls, from refrigerators and freezers affected by a loss of power. If power loss was for a short period of time, move to an alternate refrigerator or freezer. Styrofoam coolers, with a thermometer for monitoring temperatures, may be used for short periods, as long as the required temperature is maintained. Please keep appropriate records of the temperature during these time periods. If power loss was for an extended period of time, and the materials were out of temperature range, the integrity of that product may be suspect. We suggest that you call the manufacturer for guidance in order to assure that quality is not compromised.
• If your lab stores, blood products for transfusion, please review your temperature graphs if the storage refrigerator lost power at any time. Follow your written procedures to store blood in alternate refrigerators or containers if necessary. Do not transfuse any refrigerated products that reached ten degrees Celsius.
• Monitor your operating conditions such as temperature and humidity. If your instruments are running on back-up power, but your air conditioning is not operating due to power loss, be sure that the operating environment is within the range stated by the manufacturer.
• If you are using a Laboratory Information System, you should have procedures in place that provide for adequate back-up of the system in case of power failure. When power is back up, be sure to check your system data for completeness and integrity. When using an LIS, you must have manual methods to back up the requisitions, reports, instrument tapes and test logs. Instrument tapes, patient test logs and manual reports must be retained for 2 years unless scanned into the computer once back on line.
• Follow your manufacturer’s instructions for restarting equipment that went down due to a power outage. Contact your manufacturer if you have any concerns about the systems. Run quality control following a prolonged power outage.
To these original five recommendations I would now add a sixth: Whenever possible, leverage technology in a way that facilitates recovery even before the storm hits.
For example, COLA’s clients have access to COLAcentral, our online portal. COLAcentral enables our labs to upload all important documents and records for cloud storage. Thus, in the event of a catastrophic event like Irene, documents stored on COLAcentral can be recovered even if the originals are lost.
The 2011 hurricane season is still upon us. We all remember the devastation and disruption storms like Isabel and Katrina brought long before Irene made landfall. If recent history is any guide, Irene was not an anomalous occurrence.
In judging their success in recovering from Irene, impacted labs should factor into their calculations the extent to which they prepare themselves for the next disruptive weather event. Let’s ensure that the lab community collectively learns from its experiences. The patients who depend on us deserve no less.