What if the bridge went out?

HOUGHTON – It’s a nightmare scenario, but local government officials and hospital staff have planned for it – a long-term outage of the Portage Lift Bridge while at the same time a large-scale accident or natural disaster occurs on the south side of the bridge with many casualties, including some needing emergency treatment.

Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital in Laurium and Portage Health in Hancock are both on the north side of the bridge.

Jack Dueweke, emergency measures coordinator for Houghton and Keweenaw counties, said if the bridge is inoperable, there are plans to transport victims of a large-scale accident or natural disaster across the Portage Lake between Hancock and Houghton in both warm weather and winter.

When the water of the lake is liquid, Dueweke said Mercy EMS ambulances can bring victims to the water’s edge in Houghton where Houghton County Sheriff’s Office or United States Coast Guard boats can take victims across the water to ambulances waiting on the Hancock side.

“We would move patients, beginning with the most critical, from the south shore to the north shore,” he said.

If the lake is sufficiently frozen, Dueweke said snowmobiles and other vehicles can be used to transport victims from Houghton to Hancock.

Dueweke said if more ambulances are needed than Mercy EMS can provide, others are available.

“They have mutual aid agreements with every (emergency medical service) in the area,” he said.

If both Aspirus Keweenaw and Portage Health became overwhelmed with victims, Dueweke said Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital in Ontonagon, Baraga County Memorial Hospital in L’Anse, Bell Hospital in Ishpeming, and Marquette General Hospital in Marquette would be contacted as needed. If necessary, hospitals downstate and in Minnesota and Wisconsin could be contacted to accept patients.

In August 2010, the Portage Lake Lift Bridge was out for about three hours. During the outage, Coast Guard boats ferried two people to waiting ambulances on the Hancock side of the lake. That was a relatively short outage with few victims.

Vicki Peterson, Portage Health emergency department manager, said the Hancock facility has three operating rooms and two endoscopy rooms. However, in an extreme emergency, the hospital’s 16 treatment rooms could be pressed into use, including for some minor surgeries.

“We have the ability to do surgery in many places,” she said.

Peterson said some surgeries could be done, also, by emergency department doctors in the emergency room. The hospital has five doctors available to perform emergency surgeries, Paterson said.

“It would stretch our staff,” she said.

Glenn Patrick, Portage Health director of facilities, said if the situation were severe enough, doctors from around the country could be contacted to come help.

“There’s a nationwide process where you can verify their credentials,” he said.

Although there are no operating rooms at the Portage Health University Center in Houghton, Patrick said the treatment rooms there would be used during an event with many victims.

“They can do some minor treatment there,” he said.

Peterson said University Center is a flexible space.

“We could make it whatever it needed to be,” she said. “It’s not going to be the best situation, but you’re going to do the best you can.”

Peterson said after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, a nationwide emergency response program was put into place, which requires hospitals to plan out to 96 hours what they would do in the event of a large scale disaster. Portage Health also has a plan to work with state officials to get other hospitals involved.

Peterson said transport of victims by the various ambulance companies in the area in the event of a large-scale disaster would be coordinated by Mercy Ambulance, which is headquartered near the Houghton County Memorial Airport, but also has an ambulance based on the south side of the bridge.

Peterson said patients already in Portage Health at the time of a large-scale emergency would be color coded with red (most serious), yellow (moderately serious) and Green (not serious). The building is also color coded and the patients would be moved to the appropriate locations.

“We have plans in place to staff them,” she said.

Peterson said Portage Health also has a alternative care trailer, which could be moved by barge across Portage Lake to the scene of an accident or disaster.

“All those things would have to be figured out,” she said.

Although a representative of Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital could not be reached for an interview for this article, a written statement from Dave Olsson, director of U.P. Regional Marketing for Aspirus, about the facility’s planning for a large-scale disaster was sent to the Gazette.

“Aspirus Keweenaw is a regular and active participant in formal national and regional emergency preparedness training and drills. As an important nonprofit health care provider, we are a key part of the actively trained network of local and regional (Federal Emergency Management Agency)-trained organizations who work together to serve the entire community in times of crisis and large-scale emergencies. At Aspirus Keweenaw, we are proud of our team readiness to collaborate with an established emergency Incident Command Center and FEMA at any time. In the case of a large-scale natural disaster or emergency that impacts transport of victims, we directly communicate with first responders on scene and the Incident Command Center to direct patient care to our hospital or other suitable health care locations. In the case of extreme trauma, victims may need to be airlifted by helicopter. The Aspirus Medivac Helicopter is standing by 24/7 for emergent health needs in our area. The helicopter crew is trained to access patients on the scene of emergencies and disasters if the airport is not accessible.”

Peterson said Portage Health has plans to contact various helicopter providers and the Coast Guard for its helicopter for transport of victims, if needed.

Angela Minicuci, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Community Health, said the agency has a general emergency plan for the state with the Office of Public Health Preparedness, but it doesn’t include local situations.

“We don’t plan for specific things,” she said.

If there was a disaster, local officials could contact MDCH, which keeps a volunteer registry for medical personnel, Minicuci said.

“(Medical surge planning) allows us to make sure we have medical personnel and supplies,” she said.

Minicuci said MDCH staff watch over the state regularly to learn where the agency may be needed.

“We’re always looking out for emergencies,” she said.

Peterson said all of the parties that would be involved with a large-scale disaster meet monthly to keep each other up to date.

“We’re always thinking how we can be prepared,” she said.