Got Oxygen?

The mission of General Welding Supply’s Emergency Response Plan is to ensure the supply continuity of life-saving medical gases in the event of an emergency. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, that plan was put to the test and medical oxygen was supplied to nearly every hospital on Long Island for five full days. Here’s how we did it.

Hurricane Sandy pummeled Long Island on October 29, 2012, bringing with it record flooding and high winds that knocked out power to over 90 percent of the island. Patients that had been relying on oxygen concentrators found themselves without power and needing high pressure tanks. Hospitals had to be evacuated, and ambulances blew through oxygen as they transported patients. Let that sink in for a moment.

At a time when the demand for oxygen was critical, General Welding Supply would not have been able to supply a single molecule if we did not have an emergency plan in place. This would have had a devastating impact not only on people’s lives, but also on our business. Our emergency plan, affectionately named the Regional Emergency Supply Program (RESP), enabled us not only to function during and after Sandy, but thrive.

Wake-Up Call

Like nearly 62 percent of small businesses, General Welding Supply did not have an emergency plan in place. Our wake up call came on September 11, 2001. We loaded our trucks front to back with emergency supplies and oxygen, hoping to aid the first responders desperately searching for survivors. Our driver headed for the city, only to find police blocking all access points in and out of Manhattan. The driver explained what he was carrying to the officers, and they arranged for an escort to get the truck and supplies to Ground Zero. It was at that moment we realized just how vulnerable our geographic location made us. There are four ways on and off Long Island for commercial vehicles, all require crossing bridges. We began to ask ourselves what might happen if the bridges were closed for days, effectively isolating us from all of our suppliers. More important, we began to think about what proactive steps we could take to ensure supply continuity in the face of the most likely hazards.

We created an Emergency Operations Team consisting of managers from operations, human resources, information technology, customer service and distribution. This team was responsible for the creation and development of RESP and decided that the mission of this program would be to ensure the supply continuity of life-saving medical gases in the event of an emergency. Our business is very much centered on supplying medical gases to many of the hospitals, nursing homes, home health care and ambulance companies on Long Island. The ability to pump and distribute USP oxygen would be the highest priority of our plan.

Mitigate the Risks

We looked at our business and identified the internal and external resources we use on a normal day to provide medical oxygen, such as power, bulk product and personnel. The next step was to access the hazards we might face and how they could expose our resources to vulnerabilities. We listed the potential emergencies that could occur, from the highly probable (a hurricane) to the unlikely (an earthquake). We then analyzed the most likely hazards to access how it could impact our ability to operate. In the case of hurricanes, we listed facility damage from high winds and flooding, loss of power, loss of communication, impassable roads, bridge closures, and an inability to get bulk deliveries or support from outside of Long Island.

Identifying the vulnerabilities a hurricane could expose us to enabled us to begin thinking about ways to mitigate the risks. Loss of power was one of our biggest concerns, and the only true way to mitigate that risk was to invest in a generator. We picked one that was capable of running our oxygen pump, vacuums, analyzers and emergency lighting. A widespread loss of power would likely result in an increased demand for high-pressure cylinders. This would place an added stress on our cylinder inventory during an emergency, and we wanted to ensure we could meet it. As our customers have switched over to integrated valve products, we found ourselves with an abundance of post valve cylinders. These cylinders are stored on pallets, tracked as “retired assets” using barcodes, and serve as extra cylinder inventory for emergencies. Customers were asked to keep their regulators so that they could utilize post valves in the event of an emergency. Those who didn’t want to keep regulators were asked to donate them to RESP so they could be inspected, repaired and stored at our facility in case of an emergency.

In order to address concerns about being isolated from our suppliers, we set reorder points for our bulk tank that would ensure we always had enough oxygen and nitrogen on hand to operate for three days at normal volumes. We also contacted other distributors in our area and set up mutual aid agreements that would make their bulk product available to us in the event of an emergency. We arranged meetings with the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) for the counties where we operate, as well as contacted the state OEM. When we met, we explained what we do, who we serve, and offered our assistance if they ever needed it.

A letter sent to our medical customers once each year addresses a potential loss of communication in the event of an emergency—we ask them to update emergency contact information for their facilities. The letter provides them with two emergency contact numbers that go directly to managers, on two different cellular networks. The letter also explains that if we lose communication, we will be loading our trucks with oxygen and making milk runs to their facilities, and all empties should made available for pickup.

Call to Action

On October 24, as Sandy made her way up the east coast, we decided to activate the RESP program. This set into motion a series of procedures we designed in advance to help us prepare for a storm and mitigate the risks it might pose. Production was ramped up, and retired assets were placed back into service increasing our overall inventory. Pumpers worked overtime, building our inventory of not only oxygen, but products we fill normally that wouldn’t be powered by the generator. Customer service reps called their accounts and requested all available empties be brought down to the loading dock, and our drivers worked overtime ensuring we collected every asset we could. In addition, we filled up our oxygen and nitrogen microbulk trucks and then called our supplier to come top off our bulk tanks, increasing our overall storage capacity. We also fueled up all company vehicles and topped off our diesel tank.

As Sandy took aim, we set about securing our facility as best we could. We looked for anything that could become a projectile in high winds and secured cylinders by binding them in bundles. The generator was tested to ensure all critical equipment was powered. Digital backups of company data were made and secured in an offsite location. Hard copies of critical documents were printed out, such as the customer directory and emergency contact lists, insurance documents, and a key contacts list. An emergency kit that was prepared in advance was checked to ensure it was well stocked with batteries, flashlights and other basic supplies. Finally, we made sure to communicate with staff, explain the plan, our expectations, and what to do if we lost communication.

Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island on October 29. During the storm we listened to the news to keep abreast of any evacuations that might result in the transfer of patients to other facilities. We also kept in touch with key customer contacts, such as our home health care companies, to find out what their needs were as they developed. We reopened on October 30 with all of our drivers, pumpers and key customer service reps reporting to work. First and foremost, we utilized a checklist to ensure the facility and equipment was safe and operational. The only damage we sustained was a broken window, loss of power and phone service. We fired the generator up and began pumping product and loading our trucks front to back with medical oxygen. IT staff began figuring out how to get our computers back online and ported our landline to a cell phone so that we could receive incoming calls. Customer reps began handwriting tickets, fulfilling automatic deliveries and emergency orders while taking into account evacuation orders.

The home health care companies, hospitals and fire departments were inundated with calls from patients who needed high pressure gas in place of concentrators. In turn, we were inundated and worked 12-16 hour days to meet the needs of our customers and community. We had put over 300 extra assets into service before the storm, and utilized every single one. Many of the gas stations on Long Island had no power, leading to fuel shortages. Our onsite diesel tank allowed us to continue to distribute product with no interruption, as well as to utilize our diesel vehicles to get employees to and from work when they could no longer find gas. When a home health care company couldn’t find fuel, we were able to offer them some to ensure they could deliver oxygen and other medical supplies.

Pumping high volumes, we needed a bulk delivery of oxygen by the fourth day. Our supplier was able to get onto Long Island, navigating road closures and hazards only to be turned away by police officers because a utility pole was teetering over the road. The driver, knowing he was making a critical delivery, didn’t leave and called us. We called our contact at the Office of Emergency Management, explained the situation, and ten minutes later the patrol officer received the order to let the bulk truck through. When we had to deliver to one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Sandy, our driver was initially turned away. Once again, our contact at OEM enabled us to get product where it was needed.

It took five days for our power to be restored, a short time compared to the three to four weeks many waited. In that time we pumped a record number of cylinders, fulfilling the needs not only of our existing customers, but new ones that had found their existing supplier unable to meet their needs. It was by no means easy, but certainly far less stressful with the RESP program in place.

Building your own program is a daunting task, but the return on your investment (of both energy and potentially money) will be well worth it in the end. Got Oxygen? General Welding Supply does!

Kristen Lanzano

Kristen Lanzano

Kristen Lanzano is FDA compliance and safety officer at General Welding Supply Corp. located in Westbury, New York, and at www.gwsco.com.

Hazardous roads shut down delivery routes. Meet with the local Office of Emergency Management before a storm happens so they know who you are and the medical gases you deliver.

Cylinders returned after Hurricane Sandy showed severe damage, including oil contamination (left photo) and this oxygen cylinder (right photo) covered in diesel fuel and filled with water.

To keep up with the need, it was all hands on deck. Pump room operator Nicky Singh (left) is assisted by President J. Hanny Ruddy (center) and Vice President Ralph Cohan.Lanzano (right).

A supply of diesel fuel kept General Welding Supply's trucks moving and allowed the company to provide some needed fuel to home care companies for patient delivery.