At about 9:45 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 26, the lights started flickering inside Metropolitan Hospital, giving Gary Giovinazzo the first hint that this was not going to be an ordinary day. The suspicion was confirmed minutes later when he saw black smoke pouring from a Con Edison work site in front of the hospital's First Avenue building.
Con Ed workers had been doing a job in an underground vault when fire broke out, damaging electrical cables and cutting off the power supply to the hospital. Generators kicked in immediately and the emergency room as well as emergency equipment, such as ventilators, switched to generator power. But in other areas of the hospital's main building, the power was out.
As Associate Executive Director for Facilities Management, Giovinazzo oversees engineering, maintenance, and fire safety. He's one of the behind-the-scenes hospital leaders who help keep patients and staff safe and all systems on despite power outages and other emergencies. For the next 21 hours, until temporary repairs were in place and electricity was restored, he helped monitor Con Edison's progress and kept the emergency power as well as the information flowing.
"There were no adverse patient outcomes and no injuries to patients or staff," Giovinazzo said with pride when it was all over.
Three surgeries in progress at the time of the power interruption were completed without incident, and five patients scheduled for elective surgery were rescheduled. When the power failed all non-essential surgeries and procedures were canceled. EMS ambulances were diverted to other hospitals, though the ER continued to treat walk-in patients. Metropolitan Hospital has three buildings, and ambulatory care clinics and inpatient and outpatient behavioral health treatment continued uninterrupted. During the outage, a healthy baby was born.
The leadership and staff of Metropolitan, which does drills at least twice a year to prepare for crises like this, went into emergency mode, setting up a Command Center in a first floor conference room, with the Fire Department Command Center in the conference room next door.
Through it all Giovinazzo was calm, employed his extensive experience and knowledge of the facility, showed a sense of humor, and most importantly, kept leadership, staff and patients informed at all times about what was happening, said Meryl Weinberg, Executive Director of Metropolitan.
"The ability to handle the crisis calmly was essential," Weinberg said. “He's like a parent who lets you know he has everything under control. And he gives you the honest facts. He doesn't candy-coat anything."
Giovinazzo knows Metropolitan Hospital and HHC well because he started out as an electrician in the central office shops in May 1985 and has been at Metropolitan since January 1996. “His understanding of the facility and how it ticks is priceless," Weinberg said.
He is also a Life Safety Code Specialist for the Joint Commission, inspecting facilities outside HHC, and has conducted inspections in places including California, Florida and Puerto Rico.
His good humor and understanding came through as he discussed why it was important to keep patients, staff and hospital leadership up to date with the latest information at all times.
“Lack of information makes people panic the most. Keeping them in the dark like a mushroom doesn't help," he said. “When you're the one working on something, an hour feels like minutes. When you're the one sitting around waiting on something, minutes feel like hours.”