Storm buffaloes Buffalo

Thursday, November 30, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. - When a freak storm dumped 2 feet of snow here Oct. 13, cutting off electricity and phones to thousands, area providers quickly activated emergency plans.
Associated Healthcare's compliance officer, Dennis Trach, said when any of the company's 11 locations lose power, other branches step in with "people, products, whatever."
About 40% of Associated's 1,500 oxygen patients are classified as priority one and include ventilator patients and those on four liters or more of oxygen. In the event of a disaster, employees contact patients, triaging them to ensure everyone has enough cylinders to withstand an extended power outage.
Unfortunately, Associated, which has a centralized customer service system, lost power at its main office in Amherst. That left one intermittent phone line for the first day, and that, too, went down--the result of heavy, wet snow toppling trees and power lines.
"If your phones go out, the whole thing goes kerplooey," said Peter Storey, president.
With roads to the home office blocked by downed trees, just getting to work was a challenge.
"We had to get somebody physically into the home office to forward calls from the main phone," said John O'Hier, director of Associated's Amherst patient center. "The guys that finally made it in had to get around all that."
Once in, the generator was fired up, calls were routed to another branch and a command center set up, with a skeleton crew taking information from affected patients. Every 15 to 30 minutes, a service tech called in on a cell phone for an updated action list.
"We responded to a few hundred people over a couple of days," said O'Hier. "We came in, loaded up vehicles and worked 18 hours a day. We were definitely in areas we had no business going with our cars."
Public announcements on local radio stations told people if they could get to Associated's office, the company would help them.
Associated also gave tanks to local police, who distributed them to competitors' patients. It doesn't expect to recover those.
"I think people are going to hoard them," said Storey. "They are afraid of next time."