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Plans are underway to check the equipment in as many as 30,000 homes in the country. John Stillwell/PA
power shortages

Homecare sector begins planning for 'all eventualities' in event of winter blackouts

Home care companies have begun checks on whether some equipment may need to be upgraded.

PREPARATIONS ARE UNDERWAY in the home care sector to ensure that “lifesaving” equipment is not affected by potential winter blackouts.

A number of companies have begun checks in recent weeks on whether some vital equipment used by patients may need to be upgraded to a newer version in the event of a blackout, or whether additional equipment needs to be provided as backups for patients.

The homecare sector comprises private companies and agencies which are funded both by private payments and the HSE.

The sector’s representative body has warned that the the HSE and government need to “step up and take the sector as seriously as a hospital” to prevent failures if an emergency situation occurs.

“Some of the clients we’re talking about are on ventilators etc and are effectively in a hospital at home environment,” said Joseph Musgrave of Home and Community Care Ireland (HCCI).

Any interruptions in power supply, he said, would be “just as serious as the power going down in the ICU, from the perspective of the family, and it needs to be treated as seriously as that”.

HCCI is the national membership organisation for companies that provide home care services in Ireland. In total they serve up to 30,000 clients. Musgrave said a “significant minority” of these rely on life-assisting equipment day to day while being cared for in their own home.

The focus on the issue comes amid warnings of electricity shortages over the coming years. The concerns were raised in a recent report from Eirgrid, the State-owned electric power transmission operator in Ireland.

These deficits are set to be seen sharply in the short-term in particular, with EirGrid saying that this is due to the deteriorating availability of some power plants, leaving them unavailable ahead of their planned retirement dates.

The operator has said that the number of system alerts will likely increase, particularly with generators leaving the market.

Following the report, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the likelihood of blackouts is “very low”, but nobody can rule out them hitting this winter.

Carers working in the sector have told The Journal that certain suction and nebuliser machines – used for helping patients breath – may be older models that would not last sufficently long in event of a blackout. Other pieces of equipment flagged as being of concern are medical beds which are powered by electricity.

“Providers have started the work so clients can rest assured that providers are giving a lot of focus to supporting their carers and their clients in the event there are blackouts and making sure that their central operation stays functional,” Musgrave said. 

The HCCI has contacted the HSE this week as part of preparing for all eventualities in the winter, he added.

However, Musgrave cautioned that while there has been success in the past coordinating national responses – citing the pandemic – it involves HCCI dealing with three separate government departments. 

This is due to the home care sector providing care for children, older people and people with disabilities.

He added there is at present some confusion over where responsibility lies for the funding of replacing and upgrading of medical equipment.

“My big concern here is that the government and the HSE need to step up to the plate. And really, they need to treat homecare as seriously as any other aspect of the health care system.

That means having a lead in the government on this and a lead in the HSE, so we can sit down and have a rational conversation and plan this coherently because, otherwise, there are around six or seven side conversations. And that’s the recipe for inefficiency and things being lost.

‘All eventualities’

Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats and a former junior health minister, told this website that there needs to be groundwork laid down by the HSE and the Government in the coming weeks.

“The Government has said that blackouts are highly unlikely and I hope they’re right.

“However, we need to be prepared for all eventualities. Security of electricity supply can literally be a matter of life and death for a vulnerable person dependent on certain medical equipment.”

She added that the HSE needs to urgently sit down with homecare providers to make contingency arrangements in the event of the supply being affected.

“Both clients and staff must be assured that there is clear guidance available for dealing with such an emergency so that we minimise any risk,” the Dublin North-West TD said.

I will be raising this in the Dáil with the Minister next week to urge him to ensure all homecare services are properly prepared.

When contacted the HSE directed this publication’s query to the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications as the lead body planning for potential blackouts.

This in turn said bodies such as ESB Networks will have a key role to play in ensuring private homes do not lose power in event of a blackout.

It does this by maintaining a register of Vulnerable Customers based on information from all electricity suppliers.

According to its website, ESB will notify vulnerable customers in advance of a “rota” controlled demand reduction event, however where “emergency” controlled demand reduction is required, ESB Networks may not have adequate notice from EirGrid to allow it to notify vulnerable customers in advance of the outage.

It says it will notify vulnerable customers as soon as possible in the immediate aftermath of them being disconnected. 

It adds on its website that “medically vulnerable customers” who use electrically powered medical devices are advised to have “alternative arrangements” in place such as fully charged battery backup or have a plan to move to another location if required.

“Vulnerable customers are advised to discuss such arrangements with the district nurse or HSE representative regarding how their medical equipment works,” the ESB says.

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