Joint committee receives hospital earthquake preparedness report

The Senate Health Committee and the Assembly Health Committee met Tuesday in a joint information hearing to hear a report about hospital operations during a natural disaster.


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Under the state’s Seismic Safety Act,, all hospitals in California are required to remain standing by 2020 during an earthquake, and have to stay open during an earthquake by 2030, according to state legislators.

With almost all hospitals in the state complying with current regulations to remain standing during and after an earthquake, state legislators are now turning their attention towards ensuring hospitals stay open during and after an earthquake or other natural disaster. 

“We are very sensitive to the importance of being prepared for disasters and the important role hospitals play in being places not only where people get care, but also as places where we can coordinate responses,” said Sen. Richard Pan (D-6th District). 

The effort to push hospitals to be ready to respond during an earthquake or similar disaster started in 1973, two years after the deadly 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Dozens of people were killed in the earthquake that collapsed multiple buildings at Veterans Administration Hospital and Olive View Medical Center, along with several other hospitals in the San Fernando Valley. Efforts to make hospitals more earthquake-resilient continued after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, after officials found 80 percent of hospital beds were still in pre-1973 hospitals that, at the time of the earthquake, did not conform to standards required under the Seismic Safety Act. 

Seventy-five percent of hospital buildings already conform to the upcoming 2030 requirements, according to the joint informational hearing report

Currently, hospitals are divided into one of six categories that classify that hospital’s ability to withstand an earthquake. These “structural categories” range from being at risk of collapsing in a strong earthquake to being able to provide services during and after a strong earthquake. Every hospital building that provides acute care services are required to comply with the Seismic Safety Act.

“One hundred and forty-seven buildings, or 4.7 percent of the total buildings, are currently rated at SBC-1 or collapse hazard,” said Paul Coleman, deputy director of the office of state-wide planning & development, during the joint committee meeting Tuesday. “Conversely, that means more than 95 percent of the buildings have been changed from that classification to SBC-2 or higher classification, indicating that the hospital industry has done a good job of moving those buildings out of that [lower] category.” 

Hospitals now have 10 years to ensure services continue during a natural disaster, which would require hospitals to have 72 hours of fuel available, water storage for patients, staff and visitors to the facility and storage capability for waste in the case of damage to sewer and water lines during an earthquake. 

“After 72 hours, they should be able to get refueling or get something to deal with those issues,” said Coleman. “But there may be a period of time in which they have to be self-sufficient.”