Fire at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital

“‘This Code Red is the real thing. We’re opening the incident command center.’ My administrative assistant burst into my office with those chilling words. We were facing an actual fire, this was no drill that day and the several to follow were what we both prepare for and dread.”

Suffolk Healthcare Professor Lauren Williams wrote those words about a serious fire that erupted on August 11, 2009, at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, Connecticut, where she is Vice President of Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer. Emergency response plans call for Lauren to function as Operations Chief in the Incident Command structure.

Because she brings her workplace experience as a healthcare executive into the classroom, Lauren chronicled the incident for use in courses she teaches. “In my work I keep practicing what I teach about exercising leadership in times of crisis, and about doing so when the stakes are high and no easy answers can be found,” she explains.

The initial incident assessment  the Command Center received was this:

We have a fire just outside the Emergency Department with flames shooting 5 stories on the exterior wall of our patient care units. We don’t know the cause yet. We have to consider the possibility of an explosion. Patients are being evacuated from the ED.

Next, the rapid evacuation of 70 patients – and their charts – from several in-patient units of the hospital was no simple matter. Lauren found herself recalling advice she’d received long ago about emergency response: “Trust your people. They’ve prepared. They know what to do, and they will do it.” They did.

Lauren Williams

Professor Lauren Williams

But once the fire was under control and patients had been safely returned to their rooms, another challenge arose. The source of the fire was a transformer. While hospital emergency generators could meet basic electrical needs, they couldn’t cool the hospital. The day was hot, and growing hotter by the hour. “Now the greatest threat to patients was the heat and humidity of this sunny summer day,” Lauren recalls.

While engineers worked to restore full power, her team strove to protect patients from heat. Failure could mean evacuating 160 acute patients, some in critical condition. At 3 a.m., planning for a second evacuation began. Dozens of ambulances stood at the ready. But vigilant care and the delivery, 120 fans, ice chips, popsicles, and other supplies kept patients cool while power was restored.

Overall, a sound disaster response plan, well-trained personnel, leadership, close communication, help from the City’s Department of Health, and a capable fire department all contributed to a successful outcome: not a single fatality or injury.

The fire drew extensive media coverage. Here’s a sampling:

Eye Witness News

New London Figherfighters news

Norwich Bulletin

Youtube: "Fire at L&M Hospital" and "Fire knocked down at L&M Hospital"


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Posted September 2009

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