Blackout of 2003

August 14, 2003

The Northeast blackout of 2003 was a widespread power outage that occurred throughout parts of the Northeast and Midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada.  Just before 4:10pm EDT, with an air temperature of 88 degrees, this caused an immediate emergency in New York City, as 14,300,000 city residents lost power.  Across all affected areas, the blackout affected an estimated 55 million people.

The Central Park Medical Unit responded immediately, and within 15 minutes of the start of the blackout, two BLS ambulances were fully staffed and responding to calls. 12-hour shifts were planned and relief crews were organized and scheduled through the weekend, allowing for continuous service throughout the incident.

With regular communication means such as land lines and cell phones not functioning, the unit’s members responded promptly to the unit’s pre-arranged emergency response location to begin their tours.

Due to the power failure and resultant breakdown in communication infrastructure, CPMU was unable to establish contact with the City’s Mutual Aid Response System. Fortunately, however, we were able to make contact with both NYPD and New York Presbyterian Hospital’s EMS dispatch, which allowed for the necessary communications.

During the course of the first 24 hours of the blackout, our ambulances responded to over 60 calls. The nature of calls ranged from regular medical and trauma calls to those which were directly related to the blackout. The latter types included:

  • ventilator failures by patients on home respirator systems;
  • fire-related injuries (due to apartment fires started by candles being burned)
  • falls down stairwells in buildings (due to lack of functioning elevators, and to emergency lighting failing after the batteries with 2-3 hour life-spans expired)
  • pedestrians struck by vehicles (due to lack of traffic lights and  lighting on streets)
  • respiratory illnesses caused by being stuck in and then escaping from major city tunnels through ventilation shafts
  • and heat-related illnesses (due to lack of A/C and increased physical exertion by patients climbing stairs, walking home from work, etc)

During our work with this incident, CPMU members were provided meals by the Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and Roosevelt Hospital. We are very grateful for their support.