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By Staci Saint-Preux, Industry Manager, StormGeo
Severe weather and natural disasters pose one of the most challenging scenarios for healthcare administrators. When tornadoes hit, and hurricanes make landfall, emergency managers, facility directors and executives across the organization must anticipate the possible impacts and worst-case scenarios of the weather event to coordinate an appropriate response and ensure the needs of patients and employees are met.
To help hospitals and patient care facilities stay prepared for extreme weather events, here are five major challenges healthcare leaders face and suggestions on how to solve them.
1. Loss of Infrastructure and Communications
The first thing people do during a storm is seek shelter. When hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and thunderstorms threaten, community residents often turn to hospitals as a source of safety and security. It is essential to make sure the surrounding area is secure from debris and other hazards, that the physical structure is properly maintained and fortified, and that communication lines remain open.
In severe weather events, power and water are typically the most critical infrastructure concerns. To meet power needs, hospitals must have 96 hours of emergency generator capacity on hand. Facility engineers should perform routine checks on main and backup generators and ensure there are enough switch boxes and fuel to keep the facility running regardless of any issues with the main grid. If there is a possibility that water access could be limited, water trucks should be secured to ensure access to fresh water.
Power also affects your ability to communicate. Make sure you build redundancies into your communications systems. Mass notification systems ensure all employees and partners receive critical event information and alerts. Have backup satellite phones ready to use and distribute in case you lose power and phone lines go down.
2. Employee Shortage
In extreme, no-notice cases – such as flash floods and tornadoes – some employees won’t be able to make it to work, perhaps due to blocked roads or downed power lines.
In situations like this, reliable weather data is instrumental, as it allows you to keep track of the weather continuously and plan for all potential scenario outcomes. When you know a major storm cell is moving into your area, you can staff appropriately and arrange for employees who live far away to stay late or come in early.
Some storms, like hurricanes, provide advance notice of their arrival. Encourage staff to prepare their homes and families before the storm arrives. When critical staff knows their personal lives are taken care of, they are better able to focus on what needs to be done to ensure the safety of patients during these high-stress periods.
3. Patient and Employee Safety
The safety of your patients and employees is of the utmost importance. When adverse conditions emerge, it can be the difference between life and death. Make sure you stay up to date on any changes in the weather, have a plan for getting everyone to a safe area, and use accurate weather information to alert employees traveling to and from your facility.
Real-time, site-specific storm updates enable departments to coordinate to ensure patients’ and employees’ well-being and give you a deeper understanding of the current weather conditions around your specific facility. It can also save you the stress and expense of an unnecessary evacuation.
During Hurricane Irma, the team at Medxcel, a part of Ascension Health Care, was faced with evacuating a nursing home facility that sat along the St. Johns River, which reports were forecasting to rise 5 feet. The incident command team had access to targeted, site-specific weather information that showed the river would rise only 30 inches near the facility, which was within the threshold of water rise the facility could withstand. With targeted information, the facility was able to maintain operations without evacuating, ensuring patients were able to continue to receive care and did not have to ensure a stressful evacuation.
4. Patient Surge
Storms may not directly harm your facility but can affect you in other ways. For example, when there is major flooding, you might see a surge of patients in the days and weeks after the event. Or, if your hospital is the only one in the county and a tornado devastates nearby towns, your team will have to be ready to treat the victims.
Assessing your surge capacity before extreme weather occurs is crucial, as doctors, nurses, and administrative staff members could be inundated with complex, severe injuries. In cases of major flooding, for example, individuals forced to swim through dirty water will need penicillin and antibiotics to treat infections, and some might also be hypothermic. Understanding what medicines and materials you’ll need in different scenarios allow you to respond more quickly and efficiently.
5. Loss of Essential Services
During times of crisis, supplies may be short for a while, especially if your vendors are also affected. A hospital is legally obligated to ensure that 96 hours’ worth of materials is always on hand, just as with power generators. These include medical devices, linens, pharmaceuticals, and other essentials.
Plan ahead and ensure emergency supply providers are prepared to deliver supplies before and after a storm. You may want to request early drop shipments when you expect a hurricane and stock up on medications and staples like water and gas for generators. Determine which supplies are most critical, so you can arrange for delivery in advance and ensure you aren’t scrambling during an emergency.
In recent years, global health emergencies like Covid and now monkeypox have added significant stress to healthcare systems. Many facilities are already dealing with patient surges, employee shortages and supply chain challenges, making it even more critical to prepare for the impacts of severe weather.
Massive storms can have widespread and lasting impacts on hospitals, with staff members having both to protect patients and prepare for storm-related trauma. By better understanding the typical challenges that arise, you can implement smarter contingency plans and prepare for even the most demanding emergency.
Staci Saint-Preux is an Industry Manager at StormGeo. She has a crucial role in serving current and prospective clients in the Healthcare, Retail and Hospitality industries. Prior to her time at StormGeo, Staci worked as a flight planner and meteorologist for a private aviation company in Houston. With a degree and background in meteorology, Staci understands the importance of accurate weather data and forecasting and knows the value of having a team of weather experts on your side.
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