Last year, the nation watched as Hurricane Harvey dumped torrential rainfall across the south, leaving homes and businesses in shambles. Heartbreaking photos of the devastation swept across news websites. One photo in particular made headlines: the residents of La Vita Bella Nursing Home in Dickinson, TX, submerged in waist-deep water.

After the owners tweeted the photo, which went viral, the residents were eventually rescued and air-lifted to safety. Natural disasters are unavoidable, which is why it is essential to implement disaster plans and conduct training sessions to help keep both employees and residents safe should an emergency arise.

Federal regulations require that Medicare and Medicaid-certified nursing homes have written emergency plans and provide employees with emergency preparedness training. Even though many facilities have emergency plans in place, they fail to regularly update or inadequately train staff on using the plan. Emergency plans are living documents and should be updated on an annual basis. Employee training should be integrated into new staff onboarding procedures. Keeping staff of all levels and all shifts properly trained will prepare them for emergency situations and allow them to accurately and calmly execute the disaster plan, putting the safety of residents first.

Start with a plan

To begin the development of a disaster plan, a thorough assessment of all potential risks and hazards to the property and location is critical. Next, develop a robust emergency/disaster plan that addresses how to mitigate, prepare, respond and recover from the noted risks and hazards.

The disaster plan should have steps for both evacuation and shelter-in-place scenarios. A shelter-in-place plan is when everyone gathers in an interior location, preferably one without windows, and remains there until the all-clear is given. Shelter-in-place also requires at least a three-day supply of nonperishable food and a gallon of water per day, per person. Make sure this supply is kept in a safe and accessible location and is restocked as needed.

Regardless of evacuation or shelter-in-place, both plans should detail communication efforts for notifying family members of the situation. A consideration often overlooked, family contact lists should be regularly updated and tested to ensure the information is accurate. Communication efforts also should have a plan for notifying the public and reaching out for help. Keep emergency contact numbers of local emergency management agencies readily available.

As seen with the residents of La Vita Bella Nursing Home, social media also can be a powerful tool for reaching out for help and notifying family and friends of one’s current status. Include social media as part of your communication efforts and designate a savvy social media team member to manage communication via social channels.

For nursing homes and assisted living communities, it is important to keep in mind that there are additional care factors for the residents that need to be included in planning:

  • Resident medical concerns (physical and psychological)
  • Resident-specific needs (i.e., feeding tubes, oxygen, wheelchair)
  • Prescriptions
  • Medical records
  • Impact of event on residents

A copy of your written plan should be easy to follow and available to all staff. All staff members should be assigned to cover a certain area, and someone should be designated to shut off gas, power and/or water lines if needed. Don’t forget to keep other emergency items such as batteries, sanitation items, first-aid kits and flashlights stocked and ready to use.

Train, prepare, protect

A well thought out plan is only as good as the training that accompanies it. Emergency situations are scary for employees, residents and family members, which is why training and drills are important to prepare everyone for a variety of situations and help them remain calm during the evacuation process.

After annually reviewing and updating the disaster plan, the plan should be put to the test with a run-through drill. It also is beneficial to expose new employees to the plan during their orientation sessions. Implementing training during new employee orientation will help keep it top of mind and prepare them in case they missed the annual drill.

Familiarize both staff and residents with the steps that will be taken during an emergency. This will enhance the staff’s ability to protect residents’ health, safety and welfare, along with their own. Residents will feel a greater sense of comfort knowing their caretakers are prepared for any situation that comes their way. Family members also will feel at ease with the reassurance that their loved ones are in good hands. Be sure to mention your disaster plan to any prospective residents. While they may not have thought about the possibility of a crisis, they will have peace of mind knowing you did and are prepared to keep their loved ones safe.

Michael Bugenhagen joined FEI in December of 2010 and leads the development of business solutions in the areas of crisis management, employee assistance and wellness. FEI has a 35-year history in enhancing workforce resiliency by offering a full spectrum of solutions, from EAP and organizational development to workplace violence prevention and crisis management. One of the most successful social enterprises in America, FEI is wholly owned by the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a national network of social sector organizations working to achieve its vision of a healthy and equitable society.