Responding to disasters

What have emergency planning professionals learned from recent disasters?

Responding is Clifford Adkins, president and CEO of ARC Products LLC, Des Peres, MO.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we find ourselves reflecting on the many lessons learned from this disaster, and emergency planning professionals are discussing how best to apply these “new” lessons to their individual emergency preparedness plans. In doing so, many questions are being asked, but we are not asking the most important question: Have we learned anything from our past disasters, or are we relearning the same lessons? As emergency planning professionals, we cannot afford to keep making the same mistakes and base our plans on unrealistic “never” and “always” assumptions, such as:

  • We will never have to evacuate the entire building.
  • We can move to a safe zone.
  • Our backup generators will always work.
  • We will use the elevators.
  • We will never have to evacuate vertically.
  • First responders will always be there to help evacuate our facilities.

Going back to 9/11, the most important lesson learned is that we must plan for the worst-case scenario. Too often, our plans, equipment and training do not reflect the lessons learned. Do your plans account for loss of electricity, generator failure and loss of communications? Can you fully evacuate your facilities?

Lessons learned from previous disasters provide us with real-life scenarios: Hallways are dark and filled with debris; generators have failed; and your patients, visitors and employees have to evacuate via the stairs.

Assessing if you are evacuation-ready can be a daunting task. Here are three factors to consider:

  1. Picking the right evacuation equipment. What equipment moves through a debris field? Choose evacuation equipment that can handle the worst-case scenario. With the average weight of a non-ambulatory patient at 260-plus pounds, carrying the patient to safety is not an option. Wheeled devices such as stair chairs, wheelchairs and mattress sleds cannot roll over debris. A plastic sled is the most effective to use, both in its ability to slide over all types of debris and for protecting the patient. Sleds conform to a person’s body, allowing all shapes and sizes to be evacuated, and most come with a built-in braking system, allowing for a smaller person to evacuate a bariatric patient vertically with limited risk. Sliding the patient mitigates the weight issue. When evaluating equipment, bring the manufacturers in and conduct side-by-side comparisons, as not all sleds are the same.
  2. Assessing your facility’s evacuation equipment needs. Every facility is unique, and national standards can be used to provide ballpark estimates. However, when deciding to purchase equipment, a building-by-building and floor-by-floor patient care assessment needs to be conducted to ensure you properly equip your facility. Take into account floor layouts, firebreaks, type of patient care, protocol exits, occupancy and non-ambulatory rates, etc. Too much equipment and you are wasting money; not enough and it may cost lives.
  3. Train and drill support. Training is time-consuming, expensive and usually unappreciated, until the time comes when your staff has to evacuate their patients. Ensure your equipment manufacturer provides multiple forms of training (computer-based, onsite/hands on) and drill support. Negotiate this into your purchase.

Developing a partnership with your equipment manufacturer is critical. Make sure they are committed and as passionate about emergency preparedness as you are. If they are unable or unwilling to help you through this process, find one that is.

So, are you prepared for your worst-case scenario? If not, apply these lessons learned here; let us not keep relearning them.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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