Managing the Helping Hands
The Hartford fire prompted important changes in how hospitals handle emergency communications.
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2009
By Lisa Nadile
Go back to the original story "Flash Fire on the Ward"
In 1961, the community had no way of knowing how deadly the fire at Hartford Hospital would be. Knowing that the hospital could have as many as 1,000 patients and hundreds of staff, however, as well as hundreds of visitors at any given time, Hartford and surrounding communities threw everything they could into an impromptu evacuation and patient relocation effort. A few of the details:
Hartford police responded to the first alarm immediately with traffic control, evacuation assistance gas masks, and numerous other services.
When word reached the 11 Connecticut hospitals near Hartford Hospital, their staffs began reorganizing patients, clearing 560 beds within an hour. Mount Sinai Hospital received an alert of the fire at 3:15 p.m., and other hospitals reported a similar time frame. Most employee shift changes at these local hospitals occurred around the time of the alert, but many off-duty employees remained at their posts. Mount Sinai Hospital alone had 70 nurses stay at work. Off-duty clergy and doctors also began arriving at their facilities. Because these hospitals were unable to reach Hartford by phone due to glut and a policy to limit phone calls during a disaster, many sent telegrams to Hartford communicating their preparedness.
Expecting complete building evacuation and a large number of injured, ambulances from local companies gathered at Hartford Hospital. Local stores sent cargo trucks, taxicab companies sent cars, and G. Fox and Co., a local clothing and retail store, sent six station wagons that it used for package delivery. Taxicabs donated transport and made six trips to deliver blood and 12 trips to deliver staff.
Within an hour, without much information, more than 90 ambulances arrived in Hartford. The National Guard sent its buses, and dozens of pieces of fire apparatus were sent from all over the state. The State of Connecticut was the location of several large defense contractors, all of which sent help. Kamen Aircraft in Bloomfield sent its firefighters, medical staff, and four apparatus to the hospital. It also readied its helicopter and pilot at the plant. East Hartford-based Pratt & Whitney Aircraft sent three ambulances, a group of guards for litter bearers, two doctors, three nurses, and 40 air pack oxygen masks. It also requested employees use travel routes away from the hospital.
One hundred National Guardsman were sent, bringing gas masks, blankets and cots, two ambulances, six 2.5-ton trucks, and 10 staff cars.
The local Red Cross brought 200 stretchers and provided blankets, coffee, and food.
Dozens of Salvation Army workers spent 10 hours at the scene of the fire providing firefighters, police, and rescue workers with thousands of sandwiches, 200 gallons of coffee, and beef stew. One unit of six workers was stationed on the ninth floor to help firefighters, investigators, and cleanup workers.
Southern New England Bell Telephone added extra operators, sent mobile units to the hospital, and added trunk lines.
Such a large, unstructured response could have resulted in chaos. But it didn’t. "The streets were lined with ambulances," recalls Frank Droney, a firefighter who was on the scene that day. "People, just spectators, were asking us if they could help evacuate and we, everyone, were happy for the help." Carrying over 100 patients in beds and wheelchairs, and escorting patients who were mobile, from the ninth floor was exhausting. "I can vividly remember people being brought out and placed into ambulances," says Tim Kelliher, a firefighter who witnessed the scene. "They loaded the people one right after the other. It was like a parade of ambulances."
Yet these ambulances were not transporting patients to other hospitals. They were taking them home. The hospital hurriedly discharged 263 patients in an hour. The 560 beds freed by the nearby 11 supporting hospitals weren’t needed. Nor were many of the other resources offered by the community.
The nearby hospitals acutely felt the lack of immediate communication among themselves and Hartford Hospital. Within days, hospitals began plans to discuss a shortwave radio emergency communications system. On April 19, 1964, it became a reality.
Lisa Nadile is associate editor of NFPA Journal.