Hospitals Tune Disaster Plans in Wake of Hurricanes

Affect of storms on coastal hospitals causes unaffected facilities to reexamine their own concerns

“We maybe couldn’t have 100 more beds, but we could pull 100 mattresses onto the floor,” Grace said, including mattresses taken from the hospital’s nearby child-care center, from storage, and diagnostic and treatment areas. The hospitals have a “memorandum of understanding” with one another and with hospitals in the region to share space, staff and supplies as needed in an emergency.

Braeckel said through the statewide Hospital Emergency Incident Command System, or HEICS, hospitals are also being asked to identify outside evacuation sites such as universities and arenas.

How long local hospitals could survive on backup generators is another concern. “In the past we’d say two or three days was enough. But that may not be sufficient,” Braeckel said, particularly if fuel for the generators cannot be delivered to hospitals. “To my knowledge, in the past, I’d say we haven’t been asked to look at that.”

Without additional fuel from the outside, Lutheran could go three days if the normal power system failed and generators were used. But after re-evaluations in light of the situation in the Gulf Coast, “we’re going to be putting in an extra storage tank, just for diesel,” Miller said. Parkview has several electrical and diesel-powered generators.

“The whole issue of communications was thought to be a lesson learned out of 9-11, but it didn’t get learned enough,” said Bob Morr, vice president of the Indiana Hospital and Health Association.

Braeckel agrees, saying, it’s a crucial issue hospitals and communities must continue to address in light of what occurred in New Orleans.

“We think everybody has a cell phone so we can be in communication.”

Although the 800-megahertz radios are a boon in emergencies, in the worst-case scenario, when even the electrically powered towers for those are down, “satellite is the only option. Satellite phones are very expensive, and few people have them,” he said.

The Gulf Coast disaster forced Lutheran and its parent company, Triad Hospitals, to look at satellite phones, Miller said. “I don’t think anyone thought of that in the past.”

Local hospitals officials say they are better prepared since Sept. 11, and federal funding has made possible purchase of emergency equipment to develop bioterrorism and other disaster plans. Parkview’s incident command system, for example, lists 50 assigned leadership positions that will immediately take over the operation of the hospital in a disaster.

Braeckel said he is preparing a questionnaire for Indiana hospitals to address issues facilities once thought could never happen here.

“I know there’s going to be a surge of questions more pointed to the situation observed in the New Orleans area. I think what we have to do is look at what we’ve taken for granted for so long. Natural disasters can cause us imminently more problems than terrorist (disasters).”

(c) 2005 Associated Press