At 8:42 AM on Monday March 4th, surveillance cameras showed water bubbling through the ground level on the south front edge of the Pondera Medical Center Facility. Facility manager John Ringdahl went to investigate. “It was clear we had a water issue that was major and worsening, probably the main water line.” By 9 AM water was flowing onto Sunset Blvd and progressing both east and west. The City of Conrad was notified and Incident Command was activated with the first briefing held at 9:15 AM. Incident Commanders Bill O’Leary and Laura Erickson explained the situation and initial objectives were set. Water Containment, traffic control, hospital access, and public communication were some of the initial priorities noted.
Externally, the City of Conrad Public Works, and City Police were already in action. When the city supply to the facility was stopped, it became clear that the issue was someplace on PMC property, and the water kept flowing. Water extended past the front parking lot entrances including ER ambulance access and beyond the Wellness Center entrance. While it was not deep, the below freezing temps quickly created significantly icy conditions, which were quickly deemed unsafe for pedestrian traffic by Safety Officer Julia Drishinski. By 9:30, the building’s water supply was stopped. For a hospital, this is a pivotal point. No water in a hospital creates numerous significant problems. Essential services including heat, hot water, food preparation, laundry and dishwashing are all stopped cold without operational boilers. And ultimately no water for a prolonged period of time at a Long Term Care Facility, Critical Access Hospital and Rural Health Clinic would mean evacuation. “I shuddered for a moment”, stated Cynthia Grubb EP Director. An evacuation would be a huge undertaking and is historically dangerous for Long Term Care patients. While we have alternate sites identified, the weather, the transportation, and a multitude of other issues would have escalated our water issue into a true crisis which would have required help from regional and state partners. We notified the state Healthcare Preparedness Program and the State Certification Bureau to make them aware of our issues, just in case and pulled our EP Plan.”
Rising to the top of objectives was the rapid reestablishment of water supply and the City of Conrad was again there to help. Thankfully, an alternate system via hose and hydrant was established by 10AM. At the 10:15 briefing, water supply and boilers were again secure. Thankfully, the boilers were able to continue operation during the 45 minute lapse of water supply. Priority quickly became the rerouting of ambulance to the rear west entrance and establishing alternative entrances for patients and employees. Public Information Officer Casey Rasmussen quickly notified KSEN and Social Media to let patients know that the East Entrance would now be the primary entrance for all patients and employees and focus was to quickly make signs to direct our rerouting. Parking lots were vacated and traffic diverted to allow for crews to work and avoid the icy front area. Joel Farkell was immediately on site to assist with snow removal. Pondera County DES assisted with detouring of delivery vehicles. Becky Foster, Housekeeping and Sam Thornton, Paramedic assisted incoming patients to their destinations by wheelchair if needed. A ramp to allow wheelchair passage over the hose which was supplying water was immediately constructed by Dale Peterman.
Next objective, remove ice and understand our issue. Sullivan Excavation responded quickly to begin ice removal and start digging. By late afternoon, the problem was found. An old steel repair coupler which had originally been held together with 5 bolts was barely being held now by 1, and had come apart causing the water leak. Replaced quickly and efficiently, by 5PM, water to the facility had been restored to normal pathways and what was left was the cleanup. Tim Salois began the work of moving the massive snow piles Monday evening and the parking areas were reopened with the exception of the parking area in front of the Wellness Center which remained a sheet of sheer ice and would need some cooperation by Mother Nature to allow pedestrian traffic. While the incident continued into the next day with snow removal, and the area around the repair will require some maintenance when the weather is warmer, the incident was deescalated.
CEO Bill O’Leary, and CNO Laura Erickson, who acted in tandem as Incident Command, reflected their appreciation for the rapid efficient response of community partners and the PMC team that rose to the occasion. Erickson stated, “It was a Monday for sure, but I would rather be on this team than any other.” O’Leary added, “We just can’t thank the community enough, the city, Pondera County DES, Chris Sullivan, Tim Salois, and our patients. Your response was beyond compare. Thanks also to our own employees including Facility Manager John Ringdahl. Our bad day really could not have gone any better.”
Medicare and Medicaid require Emergency Preparedness planning for any facility that receives payments from these sources. Structuring emergency response using an Incident Command System is among the requirements, and now you can understand why. Grubb adds, “Coming soon, an evacuation exercise. We were just too close. Ready is our goal.”