Joint Commission Engineer: Test Your Utility Contingencies

Scott Wallask, April 27, 2010

A Joint Commission official is warning hospitals to double-check contingency plans they have in place for utility system failures.

George Mills, MBA, FASHE, CEM, CHFM, CHSP, senior engineer at the accrediting organization, said he has seen some medical centers rely too heavily on memorandums of understanding with vendors without truly testing those agreements.

Lacking such tests, healthcare facilities may find themselves competing for scarce contracted resources should a community-wide emergency occur, Mills said during a Joint Commission Resources Webcast earlier this month.

The dilemma showcases the connections between utility performance and disaster planning efforts.

Agreements pulling from the same source
Although memorandums of understanding are great ways to prepare for utility disruptions, they are weakened if several facilities or community organizations have agreements to get the same piece of standby equipment, such as a 25,000-gal. water bladder, Mills said.

Hospital emergency management coordinators should talk to their counterparts at other medical centers about this concern. If, in fact, several parties lay claim to a limited resource or item as part of utility contingency plans, it is time to conduct a drill and see what happens, Mills said.

Let's look at the aforementioned water bladder from a single vendor, for example. An exercise scenario might be for all of the involved hospitals to simultaneously drill for a loss of water, and then have all of the facilities call the vendor to gauge the reaction to multiple sites requesting a single item.

It's possible the vendor has its own contingencies to bring in other water bladders, or the vendor may be forced to simply provide the bladder to the first hospital that requests it.

Only drills can expose potential flaws such as this before an actual emergency, Mills said.

Other avenues to monitor vendor agreements
Expect Joint Commission surveyors to ask hospitals about memorandums of understanding and whether these agreements meeting the accreditor's emergency management requirements.

Beyond the aforementioned drill for vendor items, memorandums are excellent pieces of an escalating disaster drill scenario as called for under emergency management standard EM.03.01.03.

Other standards to review in regards to utility contingencies include:

  • Emergency management standard EM.02.02.09, which sets provisions for managing utilities during an emergency response
  • Environment of care standard EC.02.05.01, which discusses general utility risks
Scott Wallask Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for the Hospital Safety Center. He can be reached at
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