Teamwork, solid engineering, and a well-tested disaster recovery plan help rebuild a Miami hospital in record time

When two explosions rocked the walls of Miami’s 1.3-million-sq-ft Veteran Administration (VA) Medical Center in 2000, the hospital’s staff immediately began their disaster recovery plan. Hardened by Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the area in 1992, and fresh from Y2K preparation in 1999, the crew set to work bringing the hospital back online, which had been plunged into darkness as smoke billowed out of the second floor vent above the switchgear room below.


Facilities management quickly determined the explosions came from the main electrical distribution room. The fire occurred during an upgrade to the building’s power distribution system. Designed in the 1960s, the switchgear room employed technology that was as old as the room itself. The room housed normal and emergency power in the same cabinet. The explosions blew through all cabinets, disrupting power to 14 floors of the main tower. Temperatures in the vault approached 2000° F, melting 2-in.-thick solid copper bus bars, bending steel, evaporating aluminum, and destroying all the cabling. However, fire-rated walls encapsulated the electrical distribution center, preventing the fire from spreading.

The extensive damage prevented the hospital from restoring power quickly, so the staff decided to evacuate all 241 patients. Because there was no power for the elevators and the stairway lighting was out, they purchased 40 strings of construction lights to light the stairwells for evacuation from a local supplier and powered them with gas generators. The Miami Fire Department and Miami VA staffs then evacuated all main tower patients in 12 hours.

Phase I. Next, the VA turned to reconstruction. The facility was operating on the hospital’s three fixed generators, four loaned portable generators, and one rented portable generator for emergency power at a cost of millions of dollars—money that could have gone toward healthcare for the veterans. Recovery for the short term was a pressing issue, so the hospital took a three-phase approach to cope with the situation:

  • Become operational immediately with temporary power.

  • Use refurbished equipment to open the facility as soon as possible, meeting all codes for the next two years in the process.

  • Build a completely new and integrated infrastructure within 3 years to 5 years.

Returning the nursing home and research and education (R&E) buildings to full operation was the first step. With help from the local utility, the hospital’s engineers first looked for pad-mounted transformers to provide new feeds and a distribution center to some undamaged switchgear in the R&E, nursing home, and ambulatory care areas. The original utility feed consisted of a 13.2kV primary distribution network controlled by the local utility, Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL). This network fed a north and south vault on the property. One side of the vault handled mechanical equipment loads, and the other handled the emergency distribution gear. It also handled the normal power for loads like the elevators, walk-in boxes, and lighting. In an effort to restore power as quickly as possible, FPL was willing to go beyond their standard practices to accommodate the hospital’s pressing needs.

FPL suggested running a 13.2kV line across a rooftop to an emergency transformer they could install on the roof—something that had never been done before—to provide power for ambulatory care. The utility also set up a 1,000kVA pad-mounted transformer the next day. Meanwhile, the hospital organized a team of 25 VA field workers to rework the secondary 480V distribution system. Within four days of the fire, Phase I was complete. Using the switchgear present at each site to distribute the load, a new feed powered ambulatory care and the R&E and nursing home buildings.

Phase II. The second phase required rebuilding the electrical distribution system and finding a company with the expertise and inventory to bring the hospital back quickly, safely, and at the right price. Facilities management first sketched out a single-line CAD drawing to pick up all the existing loads, as well as identify all breakers, wire sizes, and feeder lengths. The VA had originally planned on a 5,000A distribution board but kept finding additional loads, so engineers split the distribution into two 4,000A boards.

The hospital’s engineers relocated the automatic transfer switches, a normal 4000A distribution board, eight transfer switches, and the emergency distribution board to the adjacent electrical riser closet. This allowed them to maintain the existing pathways from the burned-out room as a main distribution throughout the complex. The pathway was important because the amount of utilities that were in the way—power, signal, data, steam and chilled water, sewer and medical gases—made it difficult to run conduit and wire in the sub-basement.

The solution the team settled on included pad-mounted transformers and a set of distribution gear in ambulatory care to pick up all the sub-feeds. That way, if a major fault ever occurred again, the VA would be able to interrupt it at a low level—rather than wait to trip fault protection closer to the utility. The VA would put ground-fault protection on the mains coming into the new distribution boards and on the secondary feeders going out.

The primary function of the project’s second phase was to remove and dispose of all of the fire-damaged gear and install new or refurbished gear of adequate quality to provide good service for several years (with the possibility of reusing those components in the final phase).

The VA designed a scope-of-work and carried it out as a design-build project to limit the government’s liability. The VA condensed the 50 detailed drawings and 200 pages of specifications that are the normal scope-of-work for a project of this size to two pages. The engineers also provided three drawings of an equipment layout and a single-line drawing that showed the size of the equipment and the capacity and size of the feeders.

Because this was a public emergency, facilities management bid the contract based on technical merit rather than the lowest cost. The VA used authorized legal/technical reviews by local officials to help with the bid review process.

Three companies responded to the bid. One vendor said it would take three to six months to have the hospital back, but the hospital settled on a company that said it would bring in its electrical crews that day and have the switchgear on station the next day. The main part of the hospital would be up within ten days and the project would be completed within three weeks. The company won the contract based on technical merit and speed to complete.

Working smoothly around the clock. The company chosen for the project began gutting the vault within minutes of signing the contract. With 50 electricians and engineers working two 12-hr shifts, they had the tower up in eight days and remained ahead of schedule for the duration of the project. They replaced everything that had been destroyed, including all of the switchgear, nine transfer switches, a fire pump controller, all of the breaker panels, and three miles of electrical cable for power distribution.

The project took three weeks and three days to complete—four days less than planned. The hospital confirmed the success of the project with the seamless transfer of power from the emergency generators to utility power that failed to uncover any wiring errors.

Not only did the recovery project test the hospital’s ability to handle an emergency, but it also offered lessons in preventing future power loss. For example, ground-fault protection, detection, and interruption can keep you from losing everything—if you ensure circuit protection ratings don’t exceed potential fault current.

Periodically review the designs of switchgear and utility distribution networks—especially if you’ve had an upgrade. Older technology may not provide sufficient protection to meet today’s needs, leaving electrical systems and operations vulnerable to failure. At this facility, the emergency buses are now in separate locations from the normal power buses, so a similar calamity can’t occur in the future.

A. James Pridlides is chief of facilities management, Miami VA Medical Center, Miami. Wally Thompson is chief of facilities management, West Palm Beach VA Medical Center, West Palm Beach, Fla. Ed Safdie is chief of facilities management, Tampa VA Medical Center, Tampa, Fla.