Disaster Preparedness: Lessons Learned From Hurricanes in the Recent Past
Each disaster is unique. Hurricanes are no different. Each tropical storm presents varying wind speeds, rain amounts, ability to generate tornadoes and travel path. Below are some lessons learned from various hurricanes that have hit Florida and surrounding areas. Each lesson learned needs a solution that is practical, tested and fiscally responsible.
• Some organizations may not have anticipated or prepared for the extensive destruction and prolonged recovery period associated with the hurricane. For this reason, it is important to evaluate, when developing a response plan, which services must continue and which can be suspended. It’s also important to consider what impact changes to services will have on staffing, employee and patient satisfaction, and the bottom line.
• Anticipate disruptions in communication services, possibly for extended periods of time. Communications outages make it difficult to locate missing personnel or call them to come in to work. Redundant communication devices and experience using them is imperative. Some examples that worked in reaching a majority of staff were: web-based mass communication systems such as Mir3 and Collabria, a designated employee hot-line, cell phones, home land lines and internet. TV and radio public service announcements are effective, but it’s important to know in which broadcast market area employees live. Satellite phones/service may not work post storm!
• Access to reliable transportation into restricted areas is not always available, especially with curfews in place. Consider a contract with a car rental company or transportation company that allows the hospital to drive around and pick up employees if needed.
• Lack of electrical power or fuel for generators has significant impact not only on hospitals directly, but also on the operations of community partners such as gas stations, dialysis centers, and shelters.
• Community support services – such as oxygen delivery, meals on wheels or senior day care centers - may not be functioning immediately post storm. Teaching patient and caregiver disaster planning to employees, patients, and visitors is paramount.
• Multiple facilities may sustain significant damage and physician offices may need to be relocated. Is there a plan for an alternative work site? Have you exercised and drilled working in this site? Do you have enough equipment? Is it safe? Is it ADA compliant? Will you have IT services that interface with existing hospital IT systems?
• Mail service could be interrupted for months in some areas. Employees should be encouraged to use direct deposit and healthcare facilities should employ electronic business capabilities to perform such functions as invoicing, making payments (employees and vendors), etc. Teach staff and patients to make sure they order mail delivered pharmaceuticals early when a hurricane is threatening.
• Replacement supplies may be difficult to obtain during a protracted recovery period, especially if the vendor or warehouse is also affected by the hurricane. Have multiple contracts with vendors in more distant locations to your hospital. For example a fuel vendor may be located three or six hours from your location.
• If you are a multi-hospital system, rely on each other for possible transfer of patients and sharing of staff or supplies. The caveat here is to create policies and plans that outline the shared items, emergency credentialing of staff and how patient transport will occur. Train, drill and exercise these plans!
• Realistic planning, training, and practicing for any disaster with all your staff is more important than picking up the pieces after the storm. If staff is prepared through education and training what to expect and what to do, then the impact, especially psychologically, will be more positive and the response will be more routine than reactionary.
• Believe in the mantra, “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of you.” If you plan to have a safe working environment, keep employees working, even if the job may be different than their original skill set, they tend to show up following a disaster.