Nursing Homes Need to Review Evacuation Plans

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Not all of Oklahoma's nursing homes have an evacuation plan in case of a natural disaster, a state Health Department official said.

"Traditionally, we have seen and prepared for fires and tornadoes," James Joslin, the state Health Department's assistant chief for long-term care service, said. "So, traditionally, our plans at these facilities and the questions by our surveyors probably haven't focused on evacuation."

The department has started trying to correct deficiencies in evacuation plans, The Oklahoman reported.

The department's assessment came as Hurricane Rita threatened coastal cities and in the aftermath of tragedies that Hurricane Katrina spawned. In New Orleans, negligent homicide charges were recently filed against a pair of nursing home owners where 34 residents were found dead in floodwater.

Joslin said a recent meeting with staffers resulted in the decision to send a federal model of an emergency disaster and evacuation plan to the state's 650 assisted living centers and nursing homes. Within a month, each home must submit a new plan for review.

Homes now must have written agreements on file with local churches and school districts regarding the evacuation of their residents.

"Initially, we asked those facilities to review their plans and we were going to review them as we went about our annual inspections," Joslin said. "But now, we have decided to have each facility send their revised plans to us directly. It will be a major undertaking, but one we feel is necessary."

Agency officials hope to streamline those plans. Federal law indicates this already should have been done.

Federal guidelines used by state Health Department surveyors for inspections show, in part: "Facility shall have a written plan for temporary living arrangements in case of fire, climatic conditions that warrant evacuation and/or other natural disasters that may render the (nursing) home unsuitable."

Joslin said the issue has generally been overlooked, and that his agency has encountered a variety of emergency disaster and evacuation plans. Despite those inconsistencies, state surveyors-or field inspectors-have signed off on those plans.

Joslin said the majority of Oklahoma nursing homes have "a good, solid plan already in place."

Still, other places have yet to develop an effective plan.

In Weatherford, one nursing home's evacuation plan ended in the parking lot.

"That's as far as we've gotten with our plan-the parking lot," said Susan Gather, the Little Bird Health Care director of nursing. "We think we could probably take our residents to the Catholic church on the hill, but that's what we're checking on now...we want to have a good plan in place."

State surveyors last inspected Little Bird Health Care in January. Six deficiencies were noted-none dealing with the evacuation of residents.

Information from: The Oklahoman,

(c) 2005 Associated Press