Taking on Tornado Season: Is Your Healthcare Facility Prepared?

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preparing during a tornado hospital

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

Like much of the last 12 months, 2021’s tornado season is set to be unpredictable. 

Scientists are projecting a more abrupt and active tornado season this year due to La Niña, a weather pattern marked by cooler water in the Pacific Ocean that causes severe weather and high tornado activity. Many are predicting that 2021 could rival the 2011 Super Outbreak, also caused by La Niña, which resulted in one of the worst tornado outbreaks ever recorded in U.S. history. 

Tornado season is from February to March in the South and April to June in the Plains and Midwest. It is an annual occurrence that healthcare facilities must be protected against and prepared for, and this year is no exception. Learn the three steps healthcare facilities should take now to ensure staff can act quickly at a time when every second counts. 

Prepare your staff. 

The first thing you can do to prepare your facility is to make sure your associates are prepared – not just at your facility, but in their own lives. Provide your employees with personal emergency response plans that they can share with their families, friends and neighbors to bring them peace of mind during a disaster, so they can maintain focus on taking care of patients. 

This Safety and Emergency Toolkit (SET) should include an emergency supply checklist with items such as flashlights, extra clothes, whistles, important paperwork, first aid kit, water (one gallon per person per day, three-day supply), maps, hygiene products, warm blankets (one per person) and more. Additionally, add emergency-specific points to review so families and friends are prepared for an array of emergencies. For tornadoes, include the following:

  • Keep a list of outdoor items that must be secured in high wind conditions. 
  • Listen to the radio or TV for information. 
  • Unless told to evacuate, stay indoors, below ground if possible, and keep away from windows and glass. 
  • Close interior doors, brace exterior doors and keep blinds closed. 
  • Take refuge in a small interior room, closet or hallway on the lowest level. 
  • Lie on the floor or under a sturdy object such as a table, to protect from falling debris. 

Finally, ensure your team frequently updates a phone list in the plan with emergency family, school or work contacts. Have them practice their SET plan with their loved ones to make sure it works and that every person understands their responsibilities. When you put your associates first, and ensure they know their families are safe in an emergency, they can then properly care for the patients that need it most. 

Create an all-hazards plan.  

The all-hazards plan is the foundation of how your facility can respond in an emergency. Emergency Management is a multi-disciplinary effort, and an emergency management team’s strength is in the ability to help a facility through coordinating responses, following procedures and maintaining safety for all. Different from a hurricane, tornadoes are an acute event, meaning there isn’t much time between knowing that a tornado is imminent and bracing for impact. 

Plans must be specific to your facility’s size, shape and location, its unique risks and your local response organizations that may assist in a crisis. Items should include pre-impact actions, safe shelter locations, accountability procedures, horizontal and vertical evacuation, building damage assessments and plans for communication. Communication must be clear, accurate and rapid in order to be effective – skip the code blues and use plain language when relaying important information to patients, staff and visitors. Depending on the community, information may need to be repeated in different languages. Also ensure the facility is prepped with communication alternatives such as satellite phones, HAM radios and mass notification systems should infrastructure become damaged. Strongly consider partnering with a national communications program to help your facility one step further. As cell phone lines become clogged up mid-disaster, these national programs can operate on a separate band and can provide mobile hotspots with cellular data so that communication is quickly restored. Once plans are in place, schedule regular training to ensure the plan is followed and updated so that emergency preparedness always remains top-of-mind. 

Understand your facility’s vulnerabilities. 

Conduct a hazard vulnerability assessment throughout your facility to determine where issues could arise and what areas are safe. For states with a higher risk of tornadoes, there should be a hardened exterior structure in place with sturdier windows, safer interior rooms, and garage door entrances for emergency departments and vehicles. Your tornado plan should also include contingences on what’s happening on top or outside of your facility due to construction, outdoor work, etc. These will need to be considered when/if a tornado occurs. Additionally, know exactly where your emergency supplies are located and how they can be accessed in case of disaster. During the 2011 Joplin, Missouri, tornado, a local hospital was unable to access their disaster equipment, as it was stored in a single location that became inaccessible due to damage. 

COVID-19 protocols must also be factored into tornado preparedness procedures. To account for anything and everything, have your facility teams physically walk through your emergency plans, not just read them off a sheet of paper. Seeing how and where social distance can be maintained, ensuring each person has access to a mask or other PPE and creating safe isolation spaces for COVID-positive patients are all components that now must be considered during disaster. 

A tornado can wreak havoc in an instant, and if your healthcare facility is ill-equipped or underprepared, the consequences can be fatal. Your facility team can’t have a muscle memory response if you haven’t thought about it. When a tornado goes from watch to warning, will your facility be ready? 

About the Author

Scott Cormier is the Vice President of Emergency Management, Environment of Care (EOC) and Safety at Medxcel, specializing in facilities management, safety, environment of care, and emergency management and provides healthcare service support products and drives in-house capabilities, saving and efficiencies for healthcare organizations that, in turn, improve the overall healing environment for patients and staff. Cormier leads the development and implementation of emergency management, general safety and accident-prevention programs for a national network of hospitals that Medxcel serves. 

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