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Firefighters Ride in to Save the Day for LBJ Hospital during Winter Storm Uri

HOUSTON (March 8, 2021) — With winter storm Uri and frigid temperatures gripping Houston and most of Texas, problems with power outages and loss of running water plagued many. While electricity was not a major concern for Harris Health System’s Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, the need for water in its cooling tower was dire.

Extremely low levels in the hospital’s cooling tower (critical for the control of heat and humidity for the facility) with water pressure readings dipping to single digits—far below the normal levels of 50-60 psi (pounds per square inch). At risk was the ability to heat up the building and maintain proper humidity levels to allow staff to safely perform surgical procedures and patient care. If not immediately fixed, the entire hospital would need to shut down and evacuate 200 patients and 500 staff and medical members. 

“As we watched the pressure go lower and lower, we made the decision to start filling our 55-gallon barrels and then deployed them throughout the hospital for handwashing and toilet flushing,” says Michael Zikogiannis, director, Facilities Engineering, LBJ Hospital.

Luckily, fire crews from the Houston Fire Department rolled in to save the day. Their efforts began about 1 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, and continued most of the morning. Aown Syed, vice president, Operations, LBJ Hospital, received a call that more help was on the way.

“Spring Fire Department showed up and told us, ‘We have 3,500 gallons of water in our truck for you, where do you want it?’ and thanks to them and the Houston firefighters we had enough water in our cooling tower,” Zikogiannis adds.

By 4 p.m., the cooling tower was fully replenished. The first responder collaboration was a huge success. However, city water pressure was still critically low, which meant staff had to continue strict water conservation steps.

“Our situation was serious to say the least,” recalls Syed, who first offered the idea of seeking fire department assistance. “We had to be decisive to ensure everyone’s safety. It meant we had to prepare for the worse.”

He credits his past hospital administrator experience in New York City with preparing him to deal with the crisis facing LBJ Hospital during the storm. There he learned to adapt to the situation, call on support from other agencies and remain calm. 

“How you compose yourself and ensure lines of communication remain open has a direct impact on positive outcomes,” he says.

Keeping abreast of the situation at LBJ Hospital and hearing the interagency idea, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO, Harris Health, made phone calls to the city and county.

“The city was great in responding very quickly and sending a fire truck to the hospital,” Porsa says. “They were able to connect the fire hydrant using a hose to the cooling tower and slowly brought up the water levels.” 

In next few days, the city water pressure slowly restored and the thawing process for all of Houston and the state had begun.