The night the lights went out in Roseburg, backup generators kept the lights and equipment on at CHI Mercy Medical Center.

After the snowstorm hit on Feb. 24, the hospital lost electrical service for just less than 24 hours, from 1 a.m. Feb. 25 to about 12:30 a.m. the next day. That was much less time than most residences and businesses in the area, but the hospital still needed backup power for life support equipment and other essential machines, and it had it, thanks to some large generators that can keep the vital equipment running for several days if needed.

When the hospital has to go to generator power, it will run about 40 percent of everything in the hospital.

“The number one need is always fuel because of life support equipment, and secondly, we need to feed everyone,” said Deb Boswell, the chief operating officer and chief nursing officer.

She said in this instance the cafeteria was not able to produce its regular menu, so while the power was out, everyone got cold-cuts, sandwiches, and some warm soup.

Boswell said the hospital was lucky to only have the power off for a day, but they are always prepared for about 30 days if necessary.

Mercy has two 800 kilowatt generators — a primary and a secondary. There is also one 500 kilowatt generator that is dedicated to running just the surgery center.

“Number one is the primary, it comes on first and if that failed it would automatically transfer to number two,” said Jerry Allen, the master electrician.

Allen and Ron Taylor, supervisor of maintenance, test the equipment on a regular basis.

Every week, they test the equipment and check its oil and running temperature, as well as checking the radiator and the system for leaks.

“I do that every single week, I’ve been doing that for 25 years now,” Allen said. “I physically run them every week.”

When the power went out, Allen said the generators did what they were supposed to do.

“They didn’t miss a beat,” he said.

A 15,000-gallon tank stores diesel underground and a 200-gallon tank that sits by the generators is automatically filled from the larger tank.

“(The system) burns about 500 gallons a day and with 15,000-gallon tanks, we can run up to 30 days on what we have,” Taylor said.

If the fuel tanks would get to the point where more diesel is needed, the hospital is at the top of the priority list.

“We have an agreement with a diesel company for priority delivery so that they work with us and we don’t go without,” said Kathleen Nickel, a hospital spokeswoman.

Inside the hospital, when it’s operating on auxiliary power, there are some adjustments to be made, but the first priority is making sure its employees can get to work.

“Our biggest concern was the ability to get staff here because of the snow and downed trees,” Boswell said.

And every employee they could get there was needed. The hospital was full for several days during the snow event.

“We were full the entire time, we had more ambulances show up on Monday than I can ever recall,” Boswell said. “It was one after another and they just kept coming.”

Hospital officials sent some staff members that had 4-wheel drive vehicles to pick up other employees and even to help some released patients get home. Anybody that was having difficulty getting home was kept in a local hotel. Most of the employees, Boswell said, were able to make it to work.

“We even had a couple of nurses that walked 5 or 6 miles to get to their rides,” Boswell said.

The staff, Boswell said, always has a debriefing after an emergency event, and there were things that they learned that they will try to improve on, but they felt the emergency power supply system worked the way it was supposed to.

Reporter Dan Bain can be reached at 541-957-4221 or e-mail at

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Dan Bain is the health reporter for The News-Review. He previously worked at KPIC and 541 Radio.

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