Like a chain and its weakest link, the strength of a hospital’s outer shell depends on its most fragile pieces – the windows. That’s a crucial lesson from the May 2011 tornado that ravaged the old St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin. And it’s knowledge Mercy is using to better protect its new Joplin hospital and facilities across four states in tornado alley.
“Having windows that can withstand a storm and keep out the winds is a huge deal,” said Gary Pulsipher, president of Mercy Hospital Joplin, formerly St. John’s. “Once you get those crazy winds inside a building, they tear everything apart and send debris flying.”
In its new hospital in Joplin, Mercy is devising a window system that can protect its most vulnerable patients from 250 mph winds of a monster tornado. Mercy also is adding a concrete roof, fortifying “safe zones” on every floor and half-burying generators away from the main building. Those are the most obvious of many innovations conceived to protect occupants, the hospital and its life-saving services in the event of another disaster.
“That was a historic storm that taught us many lessons,” said John Farnen, executive director of strategic projects for Mercy who is overseeing the building’s construction. Engineers and architects studied the aftermath, looking where Mercy could best apply its unique experience.
Applying the lessons extends across Mercy’s facilities. Strengthened windows were added to other buildings under construction, including an orthopedic hospital in Springfield, Mo., and a rehabilitation hospital in Oklahoma City. Mercy’s new hospitals will get the strongest windows where needed, utilities will be better protected from storms and changes will come to existing facilities, as well, such as new laminate films that will harden glass against storms.
Mercy is working with contractors to fabricate windows and frames with unprecedented strength. “We’re actually inventing new window systems,” said Terry Bader, Mercy’s vice president of planning, design and construction.
Mercy saw firsthand how strengthened windows survived the 2011 storm. Windows in the behavioral health unit of the old hospital, where strengthened glass helped prevent patients from hurting themselves or others, were intact. “Seeing how those windows survived helped get us thinking about windows in the new hospital and elsewhere,” said Pulsipher.
The new hospital will have three types of windows. Lobbies and other public areas, where it’s expected able-bodied visitors can move to safer areas, will have windows with a rating for 110 mph winds, stronger than the typical 90 mph rating for commercial buildings. Mercy is adding a film of plastic laminate to prevent the glass from shattering. Patient rooms in Joplin will have laminated glass that’s designed to withstand winds of 140 mph.
The strongest windows will be installed in intensive care units. Testing continues in a Minnesota warehouse, where technicians shoot the glass with 15-pound, 2x4 wooden missiles at 100 mph, which is how fast debris is typically flying in a 250 mph tornado.
Experience wrought amid the devastation of the 2011 tornado is spurring about $11 million in upgrades specifically designed to harden the new hospital against natural disasters. The advances will not only protect patients, visitors and co-workers from future storms, they will also ensure that Mercy Hospital Joplin will remain the “last light on” and a source of life-saving services. Upgrades include:
Reinforced refuges – Each floor will have a special hallway with reinforced walls and ceilings, where tiles and lights are secured as if in an earthquake zone. Instead of standard interior doors, heavy storm barriers can be closed to secure the safe zones. Rods in the door hardware will penetrate into the cement above to hold against intense gusts. All passenger elevators will reach the basement where widened corridors can safely hold staff and patients.
Protected power – The 2011 tornado cut utilities and even managed to disable the old hospital’s emergency generators. A storm-hardened building will be half buried across the campus, and critical utilities will travel to the new hospital through a reinforced tunnel running 450 feet, longer than the length of a football field. Local companies will provide two lines each of power, water and data communications coming from different directions. The hardened utilities plant will also house generators, and nearby diesel tanks will be buried to protect them from storms.
Hallways and stairwells will have battery-operated lights that will automatically kick on. Critical life-support, such as ventilators and newborn bassinets, will have their own battery backup systems. Some will operate as long as two hours, providing time to move the most vulnerable patients.
Emergency grab bag – Crucial supplies will be strategically stashed throughout the new hospital. They’ll include basics: flashlights, batteries and first aid kits, as well as tools needed amid destruction, such as gloves, crowbars and even snow shovels which would have been helpful to clear passageways clogged with rain-soaked debris.
Hardened shell – A precast concrete exterior will provide a shell tougher than the brick, metal or plastered walls of most commercial buildings. A poured concrete roof will hold tight in a gale, unlike the metal decking that blew off the old hospital. A penthouse that holds mechanical units will be protected by heavy walls of water-proof boards.
Mercy is applying unheard of standards to those parts of a hospital where occupants can’t quickly escape, the frailest patients who depend on life-sustaining equipment. It’s part of understanding the unique role of a hospital – what it is, what it does and who it serves.
Mercy is the sixth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves more than 3 million people annually. Mercy includes 32 hospitals, 300 outpatient facilities, 38,000 co-workers and 1,900 integrated physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. For more about Mercy, visit www.mercy.net.