There was no mass influx of casualties, triage field stations or widespread property damage, but hospitals and emergency management administrators here said gearing up for Superstorm Sandy demonstrated the region’s preparedness.
“There is a lot of coordination,” said Richard B. Lohr, Somerset County emergency management director. “The hospitals are working with each other more.
“The fire departments always work closely with each other. They are a close-knit bunch.”
Communication issues recognized in the hours following terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, galvanized efforts to develop a coordinated regional response.
The Region 13 Counter-terrorism Task Force was organized through an intergovernmental agreement between the 13 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania and the city of Pittsburgh. It quickly expanded its mission to include disaster preparedness and holds training exercises throughout its coverage area, Lohr said.
Locally, the Cambria/Somerset Disaster Task Force was developed by Somerset Hospital and Miners, Meyersdale, Memorial and Windber medical centers, with input from Cambria and Somerset emergency management officials. The group also works with behavioral health agencies and the Health Department, said Storm Nagle, task force chairwoman and prehospital coordinator for Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.
The local task force works together on tabletop drills to develop response in different scenarios, planning for the interruption of utilities, transportation routes and supply streams in every location.
In addition, hospitals have developed standard procedures and supplies throughout the region, Nagle said.
“We utilize the same education, and the same type of supplies,” Nagle said. “This way, if I would have to go to Somerset Hospital to help out, I would know they would have the same supplies I’m used to.”
The task force will review the local response to Sandy during its regular quarterly meeting this month, Nagle said.
But while they recognize the value of working together, hospital leaders know their facilities must be as self-sufficient as possible in times of crisis.
Each hospital double-checked its disaster preparedness in the days before Sandy swept through the region.
A broad range of issues were covered in Memorial Medical Center’s disaster team meeting, Nagle said.
“We met Monday afternoon, really just to heighten the awareness of the institution,” hospital architect and safety officer Ben Policicchio said.
The meeting included 24 people representing everything from medical staff to facilities maintenance, Nagle said.
“Some of the things we talked about were flash flooding and generalized flooding, wind damage and loss of power,” Policicchio said. “We confirmed that all the generators were operational and full of fuel.”
Emergency water supplies were double-checked and drainage systems were inspected, he said.
“We really went through the list and made sure all the critical supplies were up to inventory – which they were,” Policicchio said.
Plans were in place to feed and house staff who could not get home and to bring in additional workers if the transportation became an issue. Trash cans and picnic tables were secured in case of high winds.
It would not have applied in a storm disaster, but for airplane crash or other mass-casualty events, the hospital has a rapid-discharge plan to free up beds. There are also contingencies to set up beds in different areas and use outpatient beds to expand capacity, Nagle said.
Memorial is approved as a National Disaster Management System facility and was prepared to take patients from any areas affected by the storm, Nagle said.
She felt comfortable with Memorial’s preparations. “It was good to realize that we were ready,” Nagle said.
Windber’s drill began with a check of emergency supplies and inspection of the campus for potential problem areas. Leaders also contacted the other hospitals in the task force.
“An informational notice was distributed to all hospital managers and supervisors to share with staff, detailing our pre-storm preparations,” Doug Gardner, director of plant operations, and Steve Benza, director of safety and security, said.
The notice included a review of staff responsibilities in a disaster and a reminder that the full disaster response plan is available to staff on the hospital’s computer system.
Windber’s response team linked up with county and local emergency management to monitor storm activity and the local response throughout the onslaught.
Additional staff were on call, but not needed.
Somerset lined up employees who live within walking distance of the hospital to be on call during the storm, Chief Operating Officer Craig Saylor said.
“They were all on standby,” Saylor said. “But fortunately for us, there was no need to call them in.”
Somerset went through a similar pre-storm checklist as the other hospitals, Saylor said, noting that the cooperative planning and exercises helped assure preparedness.
“It is good to know that our tabletop drills and testing of the system works really well for our community and our region,” Saylor said.
“We test for a reason.”
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.