Behind-The-Scenes Operations Save The Day During Historic Snowstorms at Seton Medical Center Harker Heights

April 26, 2021

On February 10, 2021, the Plant Operations team at Seton Medical Center Harker Heights was just beginning to feel the effects of a devastating winter storm headed their way. The temperature dipped into the teens that morning and would only rise into the 20s over the next few days – a rarity in Texas in February.

James King, Director of Plant Operations at Seton Medical Center Harker Heights, and his team knew they needed to kick their already strenuous operations into overdrive to prepare for what they would soon be faced with.

“It has been labeled as a snowstorm, but it was considerably more,” King said. “It was a loss of electricity, ice storms, 205 hours of freezing temps down to -11 degrees, loss of natural gas, propane, ice melt, equipment problems, maintaining the ability to feed associates and patients, housing associates and some family members, severely restricted travel, no supply deliveries and then the loss of all water due to a hotel fire and the continued task of maintaining COVID-19 protocols. This all developed and evolved in combination for the entire period. Challenges were presented with each alert, alarm, phone call or rounding. It was the longest continued event I have ever experienced in the military or as a civilian.”

Members of the Plant Operations team were at the station every day and operated in 24-hour shifts based on predicted weather alerts and days with below-freezing temperatures. They utilized existing policies and Plant Operations procedures to deal with the situations as they arose.

All 254 counties in the State of Texas were declared as disaster sites for severe weather conditions, freezing and loss of utilities by Governor Abbot. As a result of these emergencies, no water sources were available for use other than bottled water. Despite the conditions, the Plant Operations team was able to keep the facility running without loss of electricity or heating, and they also managed to keep the Plant infrastructure free from any freezing issues throughout the storm. 

“Most of the associates have no idea of the scope of Plant Operations,” King said. “Anything that doesn’t breathe in this facility is pretty much our responsibility. One of the most challenging aspects throughout this ordeal while navigating what needed to be done was maintaining all of our COVID-19 procedures because we knew relaxing safety measures was not an option.”

While severe snowstorms are not a common occurrence to prepare for in Central Texas, a storm that would last for over two weeks was nearly unfathomable. As the winter storm waged on, the issues kept piling one on top of another and the Plant Operations team acted with urgency and efficiency while battling every new challenge.

King is immensely grateful for the work his team put in to ensure hospital operations would continue to run as smoothly as possible, and he says he’s taking stock of all the things he’s learned during this experience and will apply those lessons to his work in the future.

“I’ll be taking everything I learned, and all the disaster plans created during this storm and utility event as a standard for the future,” King said. “Not just one disaster event but all of them. The varied combination of a continually evolving series of natural and utility conditions was more than most facilities ever experience. When almost every answer you have for all the individual plans are exhausted, they fall apart. Vendors, assistance, MOU’s, utility resources, travel, staffing, repairs, shelter, have all been removed from your plans and you have a mission to carry out. We couldn’t even drill for this. But, our team prevailed and I’m pleased we’ll all have this knowledge under our belts for any future crises. Our CEO Patrick Swindle keeping in constant communication, as well as calls from the Division VP, Bob Williams, really helped us with decisions and team morale along the way.”

The events that took place in February are something no one in Texas wants to relive anytime soon, but an outstanding Plant Operations team, like the one King has assembled at Seton Medical Center Harker Heights, certainly helps when combatting these threatening conditions.

Thank you to every member of the staff at Seton Medical Center Harker Heights who made personal sacrifices to help us weather the storm.