Area hospitals refine their disaster plans

Published: Friday, June 1, 2012 at 2:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 1, 2012 at 2:46 p.m.

Eight years after crisscrossing hurricanes hit Gainesville, area hospitals’ disaster management plans have reached new levels of refinement.

At the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center, recent upgrades mean that when hurricane season starts June 1, the facility will be prepared to have enough power and water for seven full days of independent operation – even if all power is cut off.

At North Florida Regional Medical Center, a new command center is being constructed to occupy a dedicated space – a switch from previous emergency plans that meant converting a boardroom into an emergency operations center.

And at Shands at the University of Florida, this year’s disaster drill allowed them to test the outer limits of how many patients it could handle beyond its 852-bed facility.

Much of this new sophistication in preparedness for hospitals came from what was witnessed in hospitals in Hurricane Katrina’s path, said Jeremy Gallman, director of safety, security and emergency management at North Florida Regional Medical Center.

“We hope we never have to test it,” Gallman said, explaining that federal guidelines now ask hospitals to evaluate their ability to stand alone without outside power or water supply for 96 hours.

Gallman said it was decided to dedicate permanent space for use in area emergencies.

“This way, we have a turnkey operation,” he said. “If we have any kind of disaster, we immediately have 100 percent command and control ready.”

This dedicated space, expected to be completed in the coming months, can flip immediately to emergency power. It also has telephones, email, ham radios, hand-held radios and faxes.

The North Florida/South Georgia Veterans System also is trying to communicate better with the public in the event of a disaster – or even times of caution, such as smoky conditions – through various channels including Facebook.

“There is also an area for visitors to sign up to receive emergency email updates,” VA Spokeswoman Heather Frebe said. “If there was an emergency at one of our facilities, they would receive an email update about what was occurring.”

Preparing for the unimaginable to occur brought together all three hospitals and the Alachua County Health Department in March. For the first time, over a three-day stretch, the state Health Department sent its medical response team to be part of the annual drill, which — also for the first time — involved setting up an alternative care site.

The scenario was that multiple tornadoes touched down, causing a surge of critically injured patients beyond hospital capacity.

“It went fantastic,” County Health Department Director Paul Myers said. “We found some things that worked and some things we needed to improve.

“I feel better prepared for a mass casualty than we were before,” he added.

He said that part of the exercise involved identifying the limits of what the heart of the state’s medical facilities can provide.

“Shands proved during the I-75 tragedy that they are very well-equipped to handle an event like that,” Myers said, referring to the January accident that killed 11 and sent nearly two dozen to the hospital. “But … if we get hundreds of seriously injured patients, we’re going to have to reach out for help.”

At Shands at UF, one practical issue also was addressed. Shands now is going to have the set-up for the temporary hospital within the hospital, rather than four blocks away, as it had been.

“We think that has given us a better ability to respond quickly,” said Steve Truluck, Shands’ director of safety, security and external transportation/parking.

So far, that day hasn’t come.

“We’ve never reached the point that we’re totally overloaded,” he said.

But wary eyes are watching during events such as football games that draw tens of thousands, he said.

“We watch those events very carefully while they are happening,” he said.

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