Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Smooth response to fire emergency

Officials praised for orderly crisis response

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A fire at a construction site at Health Sciences Centre late Tuesday forced a speedy and delicate overnight evacuation of about 100 kids from Children's Hospital -- and, by all accounts, it was carried off without a hitch.

At around midnight Wednesday, senior administrators and other staff began rushing to HSC to co-ordinate and assist overnight staff with the complicated task of transferring some extremely ill kids to other parts of the hospital complex.

Smoke was entering Children's Hospital from a fire at a new diagnostic imaging centre under construction directly adjacent to Children's. The fire would cause more than $1 million damage to the building, which had been scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.

The blaze was successfully contained to the construction site. By noon, eight hours after the smoke inside Children's had cleared, all the children were safely back where they should be -- but not before an arduous evening that left hospital officials exhausted and kept Manitoba's health minister glued to her BlackBerry for updates.

"There was no confusion. We followed our game plan," Dana Erickson, Health Sciences Centre's chief operating officer, said Wednesday afternoon.

There are no rehearsals for a hospital evacuation. Moving patients -- especially those who are too young to understand what's happening -- is disruptive and very difficult for them.

But Erickson said officials do prepare for such occurrences by periodically holding "tabletop exercises" where key personnel gather around a table and work through what they would do in certain scenarios. There are also contingency plans for both a hospital-wide evacuation as well as one for each unit. Over the years, instruction sheets have been developed detailing what steps should be taken in such situations.

All the planning appeared to have paid off. And on Wednesday, Health Minister Theresa Oswald commended Erickson and his team for doing an "extraordinary job" in managing the emergency.

"My initial analysis is that the team over there acted with the utmost professionalism -- and decisively and swiftly," Oswald said in an interview. "They showed extraordinary professionalism. And that's why this really was managed without incident."

The minister said it is clear from early reports everyone knew what was expected of them.

"Patients were tracked carefully. Parents knew where their children were when they sought to find them," she said. "Nobody was injured or displaced inappropriately. And the team really pulled together."

It's unknown what effect the fire will have on the opening date for HSC's diagnostic centre of excellence. Construction began on the $59-million project about 15 months ago.

The seven-storey 91,000-square-foot centre is to house a new pediatric MRI, a new operating room angiography suite and several other units. It will also allow for future consolidation of pediatric specialty services currently located in various areas throughout Health Sciences Centre's campus.

As well, a heliport is planned for the top of the building so the new STARS helicopter could land right at Health Sciences Centre. Now, the helicopter lands at the airport and patients are transferred to hospital by ground ambulance.

The cause of the blaze has not been determined.

"We were very fortunate. The fire department were able to contain the fire to the construction site," Erickson said.

While some cleanup is required, there was very little damage to Children's Hospital, he added.

Fire had to be contained on all four storeys of the new building under construction.


Evacuation of Children's Hospital

11:23 p.m. Tuesday: Firefighters respond to a fire at a diagnostic imaging centre building under construction at Health Sciences Centre. HSC after-hours supervisors immediately launch a series of emergency procedures to mobilize various staff as smoke wafts towards Children's Hospital. They call a code red, signifying there's a fire; a code green, for the evacuation of Children's Hospital; a code grey, signifying external air contamination; and a conditional code orange, alerting personnel of an external disaster.

11:50 p.m.: The supervisors call Dr. Perry Gray, the hospital's chief medical officer, who that night is the senior administrator on call to deal with any emergencies. They report more staff may have to be called in to deal with the situation. Gray then calls HSC chief operating officer Dana Erickson, who summons several key administrators. They all rush to HSC, where Erickson establishes an 18-member incident command team.

Midnight Wednesday: Patient evacuations begin at Children's Hospital. There are 92 in-patients to be moved plus an additional 10 in the emergency room.

12:30 a.m.: Patient evacuation is well underway. Spots for children are found in various parts of HSC, where possible in a comparable adult unit. High-risk kids are transferred to oncology and to the bone transplant unit. Some children have to be moved to hallways. Fans are used to dissipate the smoke.

2 a.m.: The incident command team decides to cancel elective surgeries. The decision is made early so out-of-town families can be notified on time. Some clinic appointments are also cancelled.

2:30 a.m.: The fire is contained after a harrowing battle. Damages at the construction site would be estimated at about $1 million. Fire and hospital officials take air quality readings inside Children's, and the incident command team does a walk-about through the hospital.

4 a.m.: After receiving an all-clear on air quality, the decision is made to begin returning patients to Children's. First to reopen is the emergency room. (The Children's ER never actually closed down, but for several hours it was contained within the adult ER.)

6 a.m.: A media briefing is held on the seventh floor of the John Buhler research building.

8 a.m.: The return of patients is well underway.

11 a.m.: An exhausted Erickson goes home.

Noon: All patients are back to their proper location at Children's, and things return to normal.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 A6

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