When Hurricane Sandy (sometimes referred to as a “superstorm”) hit the Eastern United States, it left individuals and businesses reeling. The storm showed how critical it is for healthcare facilities to create a viable disaster plan for when – not if – disaster strikes.

Having such a plan is extremely important for not only hospitals but for residential care homes, assisted living facilities and rehabilitation facilities.  Regardless of your size, you need to put one in place.  The question is not “if it will happen” but “when it will happen”.

Crises do not occur only on the scale of Hurricane Sandy or (even) Hurricane Katrina.   You don’t need to have a superstorm like Sandy to have a crisis occur.  Today, facilities across America face unusual and unpredictable weather, including tornadoes, floods and even widlfires.   A snowstorm in which roads are impassable for a few hours, an earthquake in which damage occurs at your facility, even just a several-hours’-long rainstorm can wreak havoc among your patients, their family members and your staff.

Developing a Disaster Plan

No two disaster plans will ever be alike because of individual facility needs and concerns. But when you are developing one, here are few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t think you will never have a crisis to contend with. Assume it’s a matter of when, not if. I hope you never have to implement it, but the chances are good that you’ll have at least one natural disaster or other crisis occur at some point.
  • Understand your situation – Is your facility located on a floodplain?  If so, you should have a plan for the facility flooding.   Are you located in “Tornado Alley”?  If so, you have plan on where patients and staff need to go during a tornado.
  • Realize modern communication technologies may fail. Our reliance on cell phones could make you very vulnerable.  During natural disasters, cell towers quickly become overloaded…prohibiting you from making an emergency call.  In addition, these same towers can lose their own power, rending cell phones useless.  Finally, take your battery into account.  Cell phones that are fully charged at the start of a crisis may soon run dry.  “Landline” telephones – the basic ones – often stay on, since they require no electricity. Barring that, your facility might want to consider investing in satellite phones for executives, supervisors and emergency personnel.
  • Plan for evacuations.  Depending on the crisis, portions of your facility may become uninhabitable. You need to plan for a variety of different evacuation scenarios.   Have backup plans to move staff and patients if rooms or floors are uninhabitable or rendered useless or unsafe. Know what to do if the entire facility must be abandoned.  Be sure to have a triage plan in place to immediately attend to the patients you are forced to move. Consider working with facilities like yours in a different area or part of the city, and agree to take each other’s patients/residents if necessary.  Be sure your staff is properly trained for all potential evacuation situations.
  • Assess your power systems. Test your backup generator.  They can break down as well. This is what happened at New York University’s Langone Medical Center during Hurricane Sandy.   What is your back up plan if your generators become useless?  If you know a disaster is coming (such as Sandy), consider ordering extra supplies in the days before the storm arrives so you are prepared if it lasts for several days.
  • Backup data. Records can be destroyed during disasters, so be sure to frequently backup your employee and patient records.
  • Empower your supervisors to make decisions. What happens if your executive management is off-site when the disaster happens? Or becomes incapacitated? Consider giving your line managers training and the power to make decisions as needed in an emergency.

Was your facility affected by Sandy? How did your crisis plan succeed? Did you even have an emergency plan in place?

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