By, Bill Eveloff and Chris Hickman

Will the recent seismic event in California on July 4 be just another reminder of the critical need for seismic compliance for hospitals and healthcare systems, or will it be a catalyst for change? Not only were the two major quakes in Ridgecrest, California, on July 4 and 5 the biggest in a decade — at magnitudes 6.4 and 7.1 — there have been more than 80,000 aftershocks as of this writing, with more than 70 of those measuring magnitude 4.0 or more.

“For those of us with first-hand experience with earthquakes, we take them even more personally,” says Chris Hickman, Petra’s Assistant Vice President, Planning & Design. “I was living about 4 miles away from the Northridge earthquake when it struck at 4:31 a.m. on January 17, 1994.”

“From that quake I learned three key lessons that I take to heart today as a structural engineer,” Hickman continues. “First, there will be no warning immediately before the next big earthquake — it will hit when and where it wants to. Second, well-engineered, well-configured buildings will perform better than those built before the development of modern seismic resistance techniques. I was sleeping on the top floor of a three-story townhome built in the 1990s and, while it shook and swayed, it did not fall down. And third, organizations that are prepared will fare better during an earthquake, immediately following the event, and in the longer term. Forewarned is, indeed, forearmed — as long as you take action.”

Scientists are urging the public to prepare for future events. Will healthcare leaders also take action and get serious about seismic compliance and preparedness? It’s not only important for hospital buildings themselves to fare well in an earthquake to protect those inside — staff as well as patients — but hospitals are also critical for providing ongoing emergency response and recovery for the communities they serve. While immediate impacts can be catastrophic, long-term impacts can be devastating as well.

Yet funding seismic compliance and preparedness strategies can be challenging, especially within complex campuses and considering healthcare’s current economic landscape. But the investment impacts safety, protects against business loss, shortens recovery time and costs, and, most importantly, ensures hospitals can continue to consistently provide critical healthcare services to the communities they serve — and on which those communities depend.

Hospital Seismic Compliance and Readiness in California

Seismic compliance has been a reality for California healthcare leaders since Senate Bill 1953 became law in September 1994. Seismic vulnerability had been a growing concern in the state for generations, culminating in the Alquist Act of 1983 which established a state agency, the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD) to oversee the seismic design of California hospitals, among other things. Initial compliance deadlines have long since passed, originally 2008, extending to 2013, 2015, and 2020 in specific instances. Many organizations have pumped millions, if not billions, of dollars into upgrading and replacing vulnerable buildings.

So, in terms of compliance and readiness, how do California’s hospitals measure up today?

While much has been done to build resilience into the state’s hospital infrastructure, more will need to be accomplished in order to meet the intent of legislation. Compliance by the latest January 1, 2030 deadline is on the radar for healthcare leaders. Though seismic compliance updates are in progress, 26 percent of hospital buildings do not meet 2030 requirements and 61 percent of hospitals have at least one non-conforming building.

The loss of these buildings during and after an earthquake could have a devastating effect on the resiliency of the community, both immediately following a seismic event as well as for the long term. Hospital shut-downs result in a lack of essential care that can’t be provided by outpatient clinics, because they do not have appropriately trained staff or the equipment required to serve the community’s healthcare needs, especially in a disaster response scenario.

A hospital’s inability to recover from disruption not only impacts community health by depriving it from critical healthcare resources, it also has significant economic consequences as well, including forced dispersion of patients to other areas, job and income loss from short- or long-term hospital closures, replacement of heavily damaged buildings, and loss of hospital revenue due to down time — which can last for years.

With about 10 years remaining, organizations that are not currently planning compliance approaches will be challenged to get there.

Petra Can Help Your Hospital Prepare for What’s Next

Are you prepared for what’s next? Research shows that organizations which are prepared for natural hazards fare better in the recovery phase — both in terms of time and financial resources. The Benjamin Franklin axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” resonates.

We understand competing issues leave limited bandwidth for healthcare leadership to dedicate time, energy, and resources to this low-probability but high-consequence issue. Shrinking revenues also limit the ability of healthcare organizations to invest capital in solving for these challenges.

In the last two decades, the Petra team has assessed more than 100 hospital and healthcare buildings in California for seismic compliance and vulnerability, giving us a deep understanding of the challenges at hand. We look at each with a variety of lenses, using a holistic approach to problem-solving and developing creative, integrated solutions, including consideration for limited capital, organizational disruption, capital capacity, and future healthcare delivery methods and options. Our creative retrofit approaches target the most vulnerable building elements. And our service line reorganization attacks the problem and develops solutions from the opposite viewpoint.

We take pride in collaborating with hospital and health system partners to provide options before significant investments are made, identifying the current status of buildings as well as possible avenues to achieve compliance and preparedness. In addition, we know the attention of the C-suite is fractured in a variety of directions — and, let’s face it, construction is not even on the Top 10 list of what keeps hospital CEOs up at night. We like to think of ourselves as the “easy button” on which the C-suite can rely. The Petra team works independently to create custom solutions, with limited strain on the CEO’s too-long to-do list.

At Petra, we’re all about creating better — for our clients and the patients we ultimately all serve. Our team of experts ensures your next facility project meets tomorrow’s healthcare needs by delivering holistic, innovative solutions with the benefits of long-term sustainability and flexibility for the future. Contact us today to learn more about seismic compliance and how you can better prepare for the next quake in California, or beyond. In our next blog, we’ll discuss our seismic work in the Pacific Northwest — which doesn’t have the same laws as California, but shares many of the same risks.

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