Healthcare Business News
F. Curtis Smith
F. Curtis Smith

In the crucible

N.M. hospital puts disaster plan to the test

By F. Curtis Smith
Posted: September 5, 2011 - 12:01 am ET

Disaster plans. All hospitals have them, but few of us, thankfully, are forced to implement them. At Los Alamos (N.M.) Medical Center, the immeasurable value of a good disaster plan was demonstrated recently as fires threatened to consume our hospital and community.

It began on June 26, a Sunday, when a tree fell on a power line, sparking the first flames of what is known as the Las Conchas fire, the largest in New Mexico history. During the next 36 days, the fire would char nearly 160,000 acres surrounding Los Alamos.

As the fire began, phone calls poured in to our hospital. Where was the fire going? Could the hospital stay open? Our team activated the initial stages of our disaster plan. We sent our ventilator patients to other facilities, connected with authorities monitoring the blaze and began preparing for the worst.

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On Monday morning, the flames were spreading out of control, and it became clear: The Las Conchas fire was headed straight for our town. We held meetings every two hours to ensure effective communications, moved our remaining patients to safety, and coordinated with Los Alamos County to evacuate the community. By 3 p.m., the hospital and all of Los Alamos were officially closed.

Over the next week, we held daily meetings and news conferences to keep community members informed and updated our staff via a 24-hour hotline. We organized food and shelter for the county's crisis team, firefighters and emergency medical services unit. We worked with the state of New Mexico to turn our emergency room into a triage unit.

Once the fire was controlled, we partnered with our community and our parent company, LifePoint Hospitals, Brentwood, Tenn., to coordinate a miraculous hospital restoration. The county could not lift the mandatory evacuation order until our hospital reopened. In just 36 hours, we replaced all medications exposed to improper temperatures, recalibrated every piece of equipment and scrubbed our floors and walls of smoke. At 6 p.m. July 3, another Sunday, the hospital passed state inspection and the county lifted the order.

Los Alamos Medical Center could not have weathered this disaster so well without preparation. For starters, we collaborated with our community. Our disaster plan involves multiple federal, state and local agencies. We created our plan with the feedback and involvement of these parties, which helped us to be seamless, prepared partners in protecting our community.

We practiced. Each year, we participate in a countywide, multi-agency drill to rehearse our disaster plan, and our facility conducts a second, live drill with hospital personnel. This experience was crucial.

Our plan was updated. A disaster plan has to be honed based on experience, practice sessions and the lessons of others. Our reverse-911 evacuation and communication strategy, as well as our employee hotline, are based on our experiences with the Cerro Grande fire in 2000.

In the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire, we are tweaking our plan. During the crisis, we were threatened with an evacuation of our emergency headquarters, where the county's only disaster response phone line was located, so we have added a mobile phone number to our plan. We also are reorganizing our phone tree for the county's disaster team.

We planned to stay connected. We established a team of hospital leaders who maintained constant communication with employees and medical staff. Our communications planning helped us keep everyone informed of what was happening on the ground and allowed us to mobilize teams quickly.

Los Alamos Medical Center escaped the blazes of Las Conchas and is now operating normally. I am grateful to the fire battalion that worked to ensure our safety. I am also grateful for the hospital employees and medical staff who worked with the authorities to see our way through this disaster. Together, we navigated the smoke and are better prepared for the future.

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