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Nursing homes are left in the dark as more utilities cut power to prevent wildfires

·3 mins

When powerful wind gusts created threatening wildfire conditions near Boulder, Colorado, the state’s largest utility cut power to 52,000 homes and businesses — including Frasier, an assisted living and skilled nursing facility. It was the first time Xcel Energy preemptively switched off electricity in Colorado as a wildfire prevention tool. The practice, also known as public safety power shut-offs, is spreading as a way to prevent power lines from sparking blazes and fueling wildfires. In Boulder, Frasier staff and residents heard about the planned outage from news reports. A Frasier official called the utility to confirm and was initially told the home’s power would not be affected. The utility then called back to say the home’s power would be cut. The home had just 75 minutes before Xcel Energy shut off the lights on April 6. Staff rushed to prepare the 20-acre campus home to nearly 500 residents. Generators kept running the essentials, but the heating system and some lights stayed off. Power was restored to Frasier after 28 hours. During the shut-off, staff tended to nursing home and assisted living residents, many with dementia. As preemptive power cuts become more widespread, nursing homes are being forced to evaluate their preparedness. Better communication and inclusion of nursing homes in regional disaster preparedness plans is critical to keep residents safe. Restoring power to hospitals and nursing homes was a priority throughout the windstorm. But public safety power shut-offs can be improved, and utilities should help health facilities prepare for extended outages. When wind gusts of up to 100 mph were forecasted, Xcel Energy implemented a public safety power shut-off. Nearly 275,000 customers were without power from the windstorm. In the past five years, public safety power shut-offs have increased in the West. Nursing homes with the greatest risk of fire danger had poorer compliance with federal emergency preparedness standards. Nursing homes must have disaster response plans, but they don’t necessarily include contingencies for power shut-offs. Nursing homes in the West are rushing to catch up and comply with regulations. Retrofitting old buildings is expensive. Frasier’s generators didn’t have emergency air conditioning or heat because those systems require too much energy. Federal audits have found deficiencies in emergency preparedness at nursing homes. Facilities lacking alternate energy sources and proper generator maintenance were identified. Including nursing homes in emergency response plans will help them respond to power outages effectively. Nursing homes are often forgotten during emergencies because they are not seen as health care facilities. Prioritization plans for power restoration in health facilities should be communicated to help them prepare. Frasier plans to invest in headlamps for caregivers and encourages residents to have backup power for their devices. Frasier hopes to be spared in future power shut-offs.