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Hospitals Lax on Quake Readiness, Board Says


Members of the California Seismic Safety Commission said Friday that hospitals in the state were not meeting their responsibility in maintaining earthquake safety standards.

L. Thomas Tobin, executive director of the commission, said that hospitals were trying to shed "their responsibility" for making older hospitals, built to outdated safety standards, safer for patients and health care workers.

"Somebody has to stand up and take responsibility," Tobin said after listening to a hospital spokesman say that California hospitals believed in upgrading their safety standards but did not have enough money to accomplish it.

The issue of hospitals' preparedness for an earthquake surfaced during the second day of a two-day commission hearing in Van Nuys at which there was testimony about issues concerning the need to upgrade building codes, building methods and the design and engineering process.

Despite earthquake damage that forced the closure of several hospitals and the evacuation of nearly 1,000 patients, Roger Richter, senior vice president of the California Assn. of Hospitals and Health Systems, told the commission that hospital officials were "satisfied" with their performance.

Richter told the commission: "We are proud of the way our hospitals functioned both during and after the earthquake."

M. Neal Hardman, with the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, backed him up, agreeing that hospitals held up as well as could be expected.

As a result of the earthquake, six hospitals and medical buildings suffered such major structural damage that they were shut down. In those hospitals, ceilings collapsed, walls buckled and floors gave way. In addition, more than a dozen hospitals faced serious problems when mechanical systems failed. Gas mains blew, oxygen systems failed, sewage backed up, water supplies were lost, and emergency generators failed.

Bill Iwan, chairman of the Seismic Safety Commission, said that considering those results, "I was disappointed in the response of the hospitals. I personally do not consider the performance of the hospitals in this earthquake to be acceptable. We just cannot have a large number of hospitals become non-functional during an earthquake."

Most problems developed in facilities built before 1973, the year tougher earthquake standards were placed on hospitals. About 70% of California's hospitals were built before 1973.

The hospital association, which represents about 500 hospitals, estimates that it would cost $20 billion to retrofit all those facilities so that they meet current regulations. Hospital officials said that hospitals are replaced every 30 to 40 years, and that ultimately all hospitals will be upgraded.

But commission members said that time frame was not acceptable.

Later in the day, Warren O'Brien, general manager of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department, said he has urged the City Council to require buildings similar to the Northridge Meadows apartments--where 16 people died when it collapsed--to be repaired to 1989 standards if they are to be reoccupied.

"It is inconceivable to me to allow them to go back and rebuild to a 1976 code," he said.

The 1989 code would require all supporting walls to be reinforced with sheets of plywood, making them more resistant to lateral displacement.

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