Fairbanks hospital readies mobile morgue

A big white container.
Mobile morgue outside Fairbanks Memorial Hospital in fall 2021. (Robyne/KUAC)

Fairbanks Memorial Hospital has set up a mobile morgue in the parking lot to prepare for any mass casualty event.

The refrigerator container is not running yet, but can be ready in two hours, said Keith Fehr, director of emergency management for Foundation Health Partners, which operates the hospital.

“When we saw the surge with the delta variant, we decided it was time to exercise that surge morgue capacity and make sure that if we needed it, we had moved it in place, we were able to power it appropriately and just make sure that the teams knew how to use it,” he said.

Foundation Health Partners used federal COVID-19 grant money to buy the mobile refrigeration unit last year, and it’s been sitting in the south lot of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital since December 2020.

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Fehr said it’s a refrigerated connex container that looks like a standard storage container. The hospital moved it closer to the building to get ahead of the snow.

“We moved it in September into place and put a portable generator on it to make sure that it would work and did a systems check on it and spent time training our team so that they knew how to stand it up in a very short amount of time, if it was necessary,” he said.

September was Alaska’s deadliest month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, Fehr said, the hospital hasn’t had to use the mobile morgue yet. The hospital’s morgue can hold four bodies.

“To my knowledge, the morgue capacity has never been overwhelmed at the hospital,” said Fehr. “We have a great relationship with our mortuary partners and they come in and move the bodies out of the morgue, and have been very timely about that.”

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The surge morgue can be fully functional within two hours, and can hold six to eight bodies.

“Currently we’ve got stretchers in place inside, so the bodies are treated appropriately and with some new grant funding that’s coming, we’ll be purchasing some racking that will allow us to appropriately treat up to 16 in that space,” he said.

Fehr said extra morgue capacity has been on a to-do list since a regulatory agency suggested it for the hospital in 2008. Regional hospitals are supposed to be prepared for mass casualty events like chemical leaks or plane crashes. And, Fehr said, because it is a federal asset, it can be shared with local emergency services at the site of an accident to quickly help with appropriate care.

“And it was purchased with grant funding,” he said. “So that allows us to share it very easily with the borough. If there was an incident where it was truly a fatality and people weren’t brought to the hospital for care and die here, but they die in the field, there is the ability to share this because it’s truly a federal asset that we’re just holding here.”

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