Monday, September 29, 2008

It's Just a Drill

Don’t be alarmed. The photo you see at right is not of someone tragically injured. It’s a picture of Amanda Sturgeon, senior director of Fauquier Health’s Patient Accounts Department, who “took one for the team” as part of an emergency preparedness drill September 25.

Amanda, Colleen Beres, (director of patient care for 3S/3W), Lionel Phillips (chief financial officer) and Barbara Tobias (a hospital volunteer) acted as burn victims in a mock disaster drill designed to give health systems around the region a chance to test their preparedness in case of a life-threatening disaster.

Fauquier victims were convincingly made up by Christina Clayton of the Patient Access Department and Julie Whisler, a strategic services specialist.

The drill, organized by the Northern Virginia Hospital Alliance, included hospitals from all over Northern Virginia, and challenged the facilities to consider how they would handle multiple emergency events happening simultaneously.

In Thursday’s scenario, three explosions in Northern Virginia -- at least one the result of a “dirty bomb” -- and an overturned truck loaded with chemicals strained the resources of Northern Virginia healthcare facilities. The disaster wasn’t real, but healthcare leaders around the region made decisions as if it was.

When word first arrived of the mock explosions, Fauquier Health’s emergency preparedness team assembled to prepare for the arrival of “patients.” An assessment of current resources was quickly accomplished and steps were taken to make beds and other resources available for an unknown number of badly injured patients.

Patients already identified for discharge that day were moved (they weren’t really moved, just theoretically), an area of the hospital closed due to construction was reopened and prepared for patients (again, just theoretically), and other emergency bed space was located.

More than three hundred victims were to be handled by the hospitals in the area. Facilities closest to the disaster were hit first with a wave of victims, and then about 9:10 a.m., Fauquier received its first two “burn victims.”

As in an actual disaster, information was scarce and medical personnel and administrators were called upon to think on their feet.

As part of the drill, Fauquier staff handled issues that would present themselves during a disaster:

• A 3-year-old child had been separated from its mother, who had been taken to the Fauquier ED. Mother and child were reunited after communication with other hospitals.

• Some arriving patients were passed through a decontamination process as a precaution because no information was initially available about the type of bombs that exploded.

• An unrelated multiple-car accident on U.S. 29 brought more critically injured patients into the ER.

• Separate phone lines were set up to handle calls from loved ones, staff calling in to offer help, concerned members of the community and the media.

• Lisa Spitzer, Fauquier Health’s concierge and David Smith, chaplain, took charge of helping victims and their families cope with their fear and grief.

• One of the hospitals in the Northern Virginia group received a terrorist threat and Fauquier Hospital was placed on lockdown. No unauthorized persons were allowed in or out of the hospital doors. Supply deliveries were checked and rechecked.

• An instant messaging Web site allowed all the participating hospitals to report status updates and needs. When Fauquier Hospital reported that it needed ventilators and IVs, another hospital responded quickly.

• The “Incident Command” team, led by president and CEO Rodger Baker and Carla Adams, senior director of inpatient services, used special computers and cell phones reserved just for emergency situations.

• Everyone’s roles were carefully documented and assigned in advance. All jobs had more than one person who understood them, for backup.

As the drill wound down and “victims” washed off the red paint, the day’s events were documented, questions were asked, and an evaluation of the process was completed. Mock victim Barbara Tobias was honored with the “best actress” award for crying on cue so convincingly that she scared the make-up artists.

It was a surreal day -- mock disasters followed by genuine responses. Then again, I imagine a real emergency would produce its own brand of surreal.

It was a worthwhile project for all concerned. At the end of the day, the realities of a large-scale disaster were a little more concrete.

Doing is believing.

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