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Tornado Preparedness: 3 Ways to Safeguard Healthcare Facilities against Disaster

By Scott Cormier, VP of Emergency Management, Environment of Care and Safety, Medxcel

Scott Cormier, VP of Emergency Management, Environment of Care and Safety, Medxcel

Hospitals are in a unique position when disasters strike. Predominately regarded as safe havens, hospitals are expected to continuously provide quality patient care and protection to patients, associates and visitors during a disaster, as well as prepare to receive victims from the disaster.

Each year, weather-related calamities lead to approximately 500 deaths and $15 billion in damages. As a crucial asset in the response and recovery of a community following a disaster, hospitals must ensure the safety of the physical environment to maintain focus on treating patients.

"Hospitals should also develop a clear understanding of disaster response supplies and equipment when creating their plans"

For much of the United States, tornado season is an annual and terrifying occurrence that healthcare facilities must protect against. Learn the three steps hospitals should take now to ensure staff can act quickly at a time when every second counts.

Implement a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan

In 2017, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services updated emergency management requirements for 17 providers and suppliers of healthcare including hospitals, long term care, home health, and outpatient services.  These requirements mandate that all Medicare and Medicaid providers must have comprehensive emergency management plans in place that account for their patients, associates, and communities for all natural, man-made, and technological disasters. Though a majority of providers already had emergency plans in place, this rule added requirements to ensure a continuity of care throughout the disaster.

As we enter tornado season, hospitals should take the time to ensure their emergency plans are updated and associates trained in response when it comes to tornados. These swift-moving catastrophes make it difficult to respond in a timely manner unless plans are comprehensive and determined well in advance.

It’s not enough for plans to be borrowed from other organizations; the plans must be specific to the healthcare location, the risks, local response organizations that may assist and practiced regularly so all are prepared. Considerations should include pre-landfall actions, safe shelter locations, accountability procedures, horizontal and vertical evacuation, building damage assessment, and training practices.

Hospitals should also develop a clear understanding of disaster response supplies and equipment when creating their plans. During the 2013 Joplin, Missouri tornado, the hospital was unable to access their disaster equipment as it was stored in a single location that became inaccessible.  Plans of nearby healthcare facilities should be shared so there can be a unified response within the community.

Develop Communication Infrastructure 

Given the short lifespan and extremely damaging effects of tornados, it is vital that the right communication infrastructure is in place.

Communication must be clear, accurate and rapid in order to be effective. Modern-day conveniences such as smart phones and social media can be both helpful and hurtful for communication during a disaster. Though hospitals will have the opportunity to share news in real time with a large audience, such technology has also created the expectation of instant updates. Therefore, communication infrastructure should be created at both the internal and external levels. Communication alternatives such as satellite phones, HAM radios, and mass notification systems will be necessary if the communication infrastructure of the community is damaged.

Hospitals should also employ a dedicated public information officer to coordinate messages, create plans for internal team member communication, and plan for various scenarios, ranging from power outages to tornado destruction. If the hospital incurs damage, family and friends of patients will want to quickly know their status, and may overwhelm communication systems.  Directing family and friends to a call center can alleviate the problem.

Follow the Plan

Once plans are in place and training has been regularly scheduled, it is imperative that the plan is followed.  It may seem like a simple process, but without regular training and exercises, leadership teams may “freelance” their response and cause unexpected consequences.

These plans should not only be followed as precisely as possible, but they should also be maintained, tested and trained often. This is especially important during peak tornado season, which typically falls between the spring and summer months.

Simply put, following well-developed emergency management plans and all subsequent processes and procedures is one surefire way to protect hospitals against the damaging and long-lasting effects of tornados.

A tornado can wreak havoc in an instant. If your healthcare facility is ill-equipped or underprepared, the consequences can range from the loss of community trust all the way to the loss of lives. Is your hospital prepared to take on tornado season?