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Lessons from Katrina Help Hospitals and GE Healthcare Save 250 MR Magnets During Superstorm Sandy


John McCabe, Product Service Director for Magnetic Resonance (MR) at GE Healthcare, sits at the helm of a massive operation designed to anticipate and reduce the effects of natural disasters on medical imaging equipment. 

The hurricane season of 2012 will live in the memory of those caught in the path of the costliest and deadliest storms of that year. In late October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the southern coastline of New Jersey – resulting in a tremendous loss of life and over $68 billion worth of damage, the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane on record behind Katrina in 2005.

Hospitals and community clinics were hit hard. Centrally located, and often without the hurricane protection afforded to more modern constructions, these medical buildings and the technology they housed were vulnerable to the hurricane’s devastation.

John McCabe, Product Service Director for Magnetic Resonance (MR) at GE Healthcare, sits at the helm of a massive operation designed to anticipate and reduce the effects of natural disasters on medical imaging equipment. McCabe was in the thick of the action during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and found himself once again involved in helping maintain all 250 MR systems in Hurricane Sandy’s path.

“The most important thing we learned from Katrina was to have an employee contact and roll-call system in place to account for every GE person,” he explained. “The next thing was to make sure our employees had EVERY resource available to them. Once that was in place we simply got out of the engineers’ way and let them do what they do so well – take care of healthcare providers. We leveraged other GE businesses and relationships of all types to procure what our field engineers needed.”

“Sandy was different from Katrina in that Sandy was well predicted by the national weather service. Not so with Katrina. Access to the city and airports was bottlenecked, hotels were full with displaced residents and visitors. We had to optimize our response, depending on a healthy concentration of local Field Engineers and mobilizing helium providers.”

Along with a MR maintenance strategy borne out of Katrina’s experiences, McCabe also had to contend with long power outages, flooding, and supply and manpower shortages over a wide area. McCabe was also well aware that some of the 250 MR systems that he was responsible for were located in basements at high risk of being flooded.

By accessing a proprietary service monitoring connection called InSite GE could remotely access the 250 MR systems’ settings and place them into a special low-operating-pressure hibernation mode that extends the magnetic field properties for a much longer period of time. “The Industrial Internet and a stated remote service strategy have significantly increased our capabilities for monitoring and diagnosis, which we were able to leverage during Sandy,” explained McCabe.

“The InSite connection we have to MR magnets gives us immediate and full access to the operational magnet data and the magnet control system. The magnet control system allows GE Service and Engineering to adjust the magnet control system to prepare the magnet for an extended period of time where chilled water and power will likely not be available.”

GE Healthcare has made concerted efforts to design and construct MR equipment to be more robust in the face of a natural disaster or an event that threatens the functionality of the machine, such as a power cut. Features such as battery back-up, InSite and the hibernation mode to help ensure that these products are designed for Service (DFS) and maintenance is relatively straight forward.

“The hibernation mode puts the magnet in a mode where it may not be optimal for imaging,” said McCabe. “After Katrina, we went back to our magnet engineering group and asked for a hibernation mode that is entirely compatible with clinical imaging. In March of this year, we were given a process and the authorization to change our magnet operations process to adjust our installed base so that this mode will be entirely compatible with imaging.”

McCabe was pleased that all the magnets were saved all due to the planning carried out before the storm. He paid tribute to his team commenting on their commitment and technical excellence. “It takes a special kind of person to be a career service engineer. Thankfully good people are everywhere. People that want to help others as their life calling are fewer, people who are technically brilliant and want to serve others are even harder to find. We employ the best of the best.”

For GE Healthcare the experience of applying a remote service in times of disaster has proved a successful strategy tending to crucial equipment when physical access remained treacherous. McCabe believes this service is one that can be rolled out to other GE business areas to great success. “Many of our businesses have remote service access to their installed base,” he said.

“In businesses like aircraft engines and locomotives, remote access to this mobile equipment is a key strategic element to service. In these cases we learned a lot from their practices.”

GE Chairman Jeff Immelt sees remote services as a part of what is being called the Industrial Internet. Essentially machine data and utilization data that can be analyzed, digested, and presented to help our customers get the most out of their assets and maximize their operations.