Beyond Patients, the Public Will Flock to Hospitals During Disasters

Scott Wallask, for HealthLeaders Media , April 15, 2009

The next time you meet with your hospital's emergency planning coordinators, ask them whether the facility is ready to stand in as the corner drug store or local diner during a community-wide catastrophe.

These considerations should get a CEO's attention, says Joseph Cappiello, chairman of Cappiello & Associates in Elmhurst, IL, and the former vice president of accreditation field operations at The Joint Commission.

During a community disaster, the public may look to a hospital for refuge, so CEOs and hospital emergency management coordinators would be wise to include public services in their planning, Cappiello says.

Such was the experience at Heywood Hospital in Gardner, MA, and Muhlenberg Community Hospital in Greenville, KY, during ice storms in those regions in December 2008 and January 2009.

The storms knocked out power across widespread areas. Generally, in such situations hospitals receive priority assistance from utility companies to get power back up, which leads to medical centers becoming sought-after sites for those in the general public who need electricity or services provided by electricity, safety managers at both sites said.

For example, until every local drug store and retail chain pharmacy gets its power back-or community responders set up temporary pharmacies elsewhere-hospitals must prepare to fill prescriptions for folks who need their medications, said Scott Janssens, RRT, MBA, CMRP, director of materials management and safety for Heywood Hospital.

Also, hospitals should brace for booming business at their cafeterias during power outages. Muhlenberg Community Hospital's cafeteria was one of the few working restaurants in town in the aftermath of the storm, said Martin Wheatley, director of engineering.

CEOs should confirm that hospital emergency operations plans anticipate serving:

  • Additional employee meals if added workers have been called in during a disaster response
  • Meals for community residents who can't get food anywhere else if grocery stores and eateries are without power or water

Also, Muhlenberg Community Hospital provided temporary housing for some staff members who had no means of getting home or who elected to put in as much overtime as needed.

"A lot of people [either] stayed or couldn't leave," Wheatley said. "We put them up in extra rooms we weren't using."

Heywood Hospital stayed on generator power for 48 hours during the December ice storm. However, because the rest of the small city and surrounding area remained without power for much longer, Heywood Hospital extended its emergency operations to 105 hours total, Janssens said.

Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for the Hospital Safety Center. He can be reached at

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