Bill aims to protect hospitals from rolling blackouts

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on March 6, 2013 at 6:32 PM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 6 at 7:05 PM

DALLAS -- A bill filed this week by a Dallas senator aims to exempt hospitals from the rolling blackouts that affected more than two dozen medical centers during the Super Bowl week ice storm in 2011.

Operating rooms at 25 medical facilities in the region briefly went dark that February. Electricy was cut without warning and generators kicked in, forcing equipment to reboot. At Davita Dialysis in Dallas, blood had to be hand-cranked back into patients' bodies.

"It could have absolutely been life-threatening," said DFW Hospital Council President Steve Love.

Love applauds Senate Bill 1139, filed late Monday by State Senator John Carona (R – Dallas). It would exclude hospitals from rolling blackouts.

"Currently, there is nothing on the books, as [far as] a law that says they're exempt," Love said. "What it does say is, that they are critical-care facilities, and they should be some of the very last people subjected to rolling blackouts. That is not what happened on February 2nd."

On Feb. 2, Super Bowl venues, including Cowboys Stadium, were kept on the grid on purpose. Oncor officials cited security risks as the reason. Power company officials say back then, hospitals were just low on the list, not last.

"What we can say is, they will be the absolute last choice," said Oncor Senior Communications Director Christopher Schein.

Schein said power companies and ERCOT have made important changes to insure lives are not at risk during blackouts. Hospitals and jails will be given more advance notice of possible outages. Two years ago, facilities did not have enough time to power up generators facility-wide.

Some hospitals now have dual energy paths that connect them to more than one power plant. That means if one plant goes offline or must shed wattage that includes the hospital, the facility could still get power from the other plant.

Hospitals that don't have dual paths would be required to install them at their own expense. Such a project can take time and cost millions of dollars.

Oncor experts say it is possible to exclude hospitals from rolling blackouts, but the balance of power production and usage is complicated. A blanket exemption could come with serious consequences.

"Either the hospital goes out for 20 minutes," Schein said, "or all of us go out for several weeks."

If the bill passes, only hospitals would be protected from rolling blackouts. Dialysis facilities and other medical and surgical centers could still have their power shut off.

Experts on all fronts agree, however, that conservation would likely make exemptions or bills unnecessary. 

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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