COLUMBIA, SC When local hospital officials read about the drama at New York’s Tisch Hospital during Superstorm Sandy, they did what they already do several times a month.
They took another look at their own emergency plans. Those plans are constantly practiced and tweaked.
“While hurricane storm surge is not a concern for us, severe weather, power failure and evacuation are part of all hazards planning,” said Dr. Steve Shelton, who practices emergency medicine and is the medical director of the disaster team at Palmetto Health Richland. “We will take the lessons learned by the hospitals affected by Sandy and apply them to our preparedness planning.”
The three large Midlands hospital systems — Palmetto Health, Providence Hospitals and Lexington Medical Center — have disaster teams that meet frequently. Staff members participate in drills at least once a year. The emergency plan is updated each year, or more frequently if real events reveal areas needing improvement.
Flooding from storm surge knocked out the backup power generation system at Tisch, according to news reports. The subsequent evacuation of patients led to dramatic tales of hospital personnel using hand-ventilators to keep intensive care babies alive while carrying them downstairs.
State health guidelines require that hospitals check their backup generators monthly. Lexington Medical Center runs its four backup generators 30 minutes each week, said Joel Huggins, director of public safety for the hospital. Palmetto Health and Providence also check their generators weekly, hospital officials said.
Once the Tisch situation is studied and the problems are more clear, disaster teams at hospitals nationwide will gather and see whether any of the lessons apply to them, just as they did after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in Louisiana hospitals.
“We have attended several ‘lessons learned’ seminars regarding the disaster in New Orleans,” Huggins said. “While we already had an emergency plan, some changes were made. The biggest was working with each department on developing their own evacuation plan.”
Katrina also prompted hospitals to revisit how long they might need to provide for themselves. A few days’ worth of bottled water, fuel for generators or basic medical supplies wouldn’t be enough, said Horace Rauch, Providence Hospitals’ safety officer.
“Our regulatory statutes call for 96 hours of supplies,” Rauch said. “That’s just to meet standards. In most cases, we go well beyond that.”
Tweaks also were made after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Joplin, Mo., tornados, the swine flu outbreak in 2009 and several mass shootings, according to Shelton. Each hospital’s plan calls for continuing the role of caring for the ailing and injured as long as possible while also considering the potential for evacuation.
A few years ago, Palmetto Health bought Med Sleds similar to those used at Tisch this week to evacuate patients. They have trained personnel to use them, said hospital spokeswoman Tammie Epps.
Shelton said Palmetto Health has procedures for each type of emergencies, but it focuses on procedures that should work in any emergency. “Preparing for a specific event sets you up for failure if the event is not what you planned for,” he said.
Lexington, located on high ground near the Saluda River, has to prepare for one unique circumstance. A catastrophic failure of the Lake Murray dam wouldn’t flood the hospital building, according to projections, but it likely would leave the hospital on an island. The process of getting employees in and out of the hospital in that case is included in the planning process.
South Carolina hospitals have experience in disasters.
MUSC, Roper and Veterans Administration hospitals in Charleston discharged as many patients as possible in the 48 hours before Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. Through resourceful efforts by staffs — at Roper, two employees waded into water and hand-cranked a pump for hours to keep a generator from flooding — the hospitals remained in operation during the storm and in the chaotic aftermath.
Roper has since relocated its generators, making them less vulnerable to flooding. MUSC learned to take steps such as providing child-care services so employees don’t have to choose between being near their children or performing their jobs.
Midlands hospitals haven’t had to deal with major evacuations. A ruptured water line several years ago prompted fears of a power failure at the Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, and patients in the Children’s Hospital were moved next door to the main hospital or the Heart Hospital. That ended up being a valuable practice for a more extensive evacuation.
Still, all hospitals try to prepare for the worst. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control coordinates regional drills, with all hospitals in the area participating to make it easier for them to work together in a real emergency.
In recent years, Fort Jackson soldiers played the role of mass shooting casualties pouring into Providence for one drill. In another drill, nursing students from Midlands Tech were in the role of Providence patients who had to be evacuated to hospitals in Fairfield and Chester counties, Rauch said.
It’s more common for local hospitals to receive patients evacuated from coastal facilities during hurricanes. For instance, some of the patients evacuated from Katrina-impacted hospitals ended up in the Midlands. Each of the hospitals also has a plan for that contingency.