As the National Weather Service issued its predictions for where and when Hurricane Sandy would the Atlantic states in late October of last year, John McCabe, product service director for MR at GE Healthcare and his colleagues watched closely. McCabe had also been responsible for GE MRs during Hurricane Katrina and he remembered distinctly the challenges of that storm.
“We learned something from Katrina,” McCabe said. “We had the same plan [for Hurricane Sandy]. But with Katrina, the National Weather Bureau had a difficult time predicting the path of the storm. We were wrong about where it was going to enter the city, so we did lose magnets there.”
Thankfully, for Sandy the Weather Bureau’s predictions were spot on. Before the storm made landfall, GE superimposed the weather predictions on its own map of locations of its MR systems. “All the systems that were affected just lit up,” McCabe explained.
It quickly became clear what a huge logistical challenge the storm would pose. From Katrina, McCabe knew to expect long power outages, flooding, and supply and manpower shortages over a vast area. As the map in front of him showed, Sandy would affect 250 MR systems that he was responsible for. In the end, he and his team would save them all from a quench, although a few that were located in basements would be flooded.
Because GE MRs are equipped with a battery backup and a proprietary service monitoring connection called InSite, GE could remotely access the 250 MR systems’ settings and put them into a special low-operating-pressure hibernation mode that extends the time until the MR quenches up to three times what it would be under normal circumstances.
In addition, GE could remotely monitor the helium levels and refill them if they got close to 40 percent. Before the storm, McCabe met with GE’s cryogen suppliers — Praxair and Air Products — and prepared them for the need to do many more refills than normal in the days and weeks after the storm. As a result, they were able to protect some flooded systems for weeks until repairs were finished and they could be safely powered up again.
Hurricane conference calls with GE colleagues in Atlantic states also led McCabe to discover that GE owned a fleet of portable generators that had been purchased in 2005 after Katrina. These were put on a truck and driven to affected GE clients for operating water pumps and any other need the clients may have had, not just to support their MRs.
In addition to the lack of power, the lack of fuel to run the generator and the vehicles of the service technicians (which also served as a source of power for the techs’ computers and cell phones) was a challenge. McCabe said a success in Sandy was partnering with gas providers.
Finally, manpower was a challenge that was overcome by flying in GE experts from other parts of the country — “people who lived and breathed magnets,” he said — and also committing to doing everything necessary to support their service technicians who lived in the affected area so that they could return to work with their families safe and cared for.
Why all the effort? There were several reasons McCabe said. One of the big ones was that preventing damage to an MR and allowing it to be put back in service as quickly as possible protected both patient access and the imaging provider’s business as every day an MR is out of service costs the provider money.
In addition, Sandy occurred at a time when there is a severe worldwide helium shortage. “If all those magnets would have quenched, I don’t know where the helium would have come from,” McCabe says.
He is proud that in the end, all the magnets were saved thanks to the planing that occurred before the storm. “I take pride that we saw this coming,” he said. “It was a team thing, and it brought a lot of people very close.”