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Thirty-Five Years of Seismic
Safety Laws Leave Hospitals
on Shaky Ground

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Since hospitals in the Coachella Valley would be considered at “ground zero” for such a catastrophic occurrence, the question becomes how safe are valley hospitals according to seismic safety standards?

The Alfred E. Alquist Facility Seismic Safety Act And SB 1953

In 1983, California’s Legislature toughened hospital building codes with the Alfred E. Alquist Facility Seismic Safety Act , following the magnitude 6.6 Sylmar earthquake in 1971 that caused severe damage at four major hospital campuses.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake in which many older (pre-1973) hospital buildings performed poorly and sustained considerable damage, the Legislature amended the Alquist Act to strengthen seismic requirements for hospitals. SB 1953 required hospitals to evaluate and rate all their general acute care hospital buildings for seismic resistance, and submit the ratings to the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD) by no later than January 2001.

Following the passage of SB 1953, 442 of the state’s acute care hospitals evaluated their buildings for structural and non-structural vulnerabilities and reported the following facts to OSHPD:

• 973 or 37% of the state’s hospital buildings were rated as SPC-1
•175 buildings earned the rating of SPC-2

It should be noted that SPC-1 and SPC-2 are considered the most critical building ratings and are defined in the 2001 Summary of Hospital Seismic Performance Ratings as the following:

SPC-1 These buildings pose a significant risk of collapse and a danger to the public after a strong earthquake. These buildings were to be retrofitted, replaced, or removed from acute-care service by January 1, 2008.

SPC-2 These are buildings in compliance with the pre-1973 California Building Standards Code or other applicable standards, but are not in compliance with the structural provisions of the Alquist Hospital Facilities Seismic Safety Act. These buildings do not significantly jeopardize life, but may not be repairable or functional following strong ground motion.
These buildings must be brought into compliance with the Alquist Act by January 1, 2030 or be removed from acute care service.

So how did Coachella Valley Hospitals rate?

Here are the numbers of buildings at Coachella Valley Hospitals that were given SPC-1 Ratings under SB 1953, as of the January 2001 reporting deadline:

Desert Regional Medical Center, Palm Springs
Total Buildings Reported = 12
Number of Buildings Rated SPC-1 = 3

Eisenhower Medical Center, Rancho Mirage
Total Buildings Reported = 13
Number of buildings Rated SPC-1 = 3

John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, Indio
Total Buildings Reported = 6
Number of buildings Rated SPC-1 = 2

For complete details regarding seismic ratings of all hospital buildings, visit http://www.oshpd.ca.gov/fdd/sb1953/sb1953rating.pdf

More Extensions for Hospitals and an Opportunity for Seismic
Re-Evaluation

Under SB 1953, all general acute-care inpatient hospital buildings were required to meet at least SPC-2 requirements (so as not to pose a risk of collapsing in a major earthquake) by January 1, 2008. Administrators at a number of hospitals requested (and were granted) extensions until 2013, citing the struggling health care economy as a reason for their requests.
All three Coachella Valley hospitals, Desert Regional, Eisenhower, and JFK Memorial requested and received extensions until 2013. For a complete list of hospitals in California that requested and were granted extensions, visit http://www.oshpd.ca.gov/fdd/sb1953/seismicext.pdf

SB 306 Seismic Safety Extension

On October 13, 2007, Senate Bill 306, sponsored by state Senator Denise Ducheny of San Diego, and supported by the California Hospital Association, was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. The law allows 7-year extensions from 2013 to 2020 for hospitals lacking the
financial capability to comply. For a complete list of hospitals applying for the 2020 extension along with their approval status, visit http://www.oshpd.ca.gov/HID/SB306/ApplicationStatus.pdf

It should be noted, however, that the passage of SB 306 was highly controversial in some circles. According to a July 30, 2007 article released by the California Nurses Association, SB 306 “weakened hospital seismic safety at hundreds of facilities” and “endangered patients and public safety.” In a quote by Donna Gerber, director of legislative affairs for the California Nurses Association, “Hospitals are the one place we need standing after an earthquake, and it’s reckless to loosen their safety standards.”

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