We interrupt this program….
Remember when this pronouncement meant something to listeners or viewers? Like many of you in the 12th Man, I found myself glued to Super Bowl Champion Seahawk parade coverage. Listening to a jubilant Dori Monson, Brock and Danny on Seattle sports radio, I was hit by a real-world reminder. Dori became serious, changed his tone of voice announcing he had been asked by city officials to request parade revelers to “stop using their cellphones” because 911 calls were not getting through. This piqued my interest!
Why, you may ask?
Struck by the lightning bolt of 9/11, I became interested in emergency preparedness. Now board certified in Disaster Medicine, I work on emergency planning with Snohomish County Fire District 1 and Swedish Edmonds. As Seattle officials pleaded for citizens to reduce cell traffic, I was immediately reminded of the recent American College of Emergency Physicians revelation of the failing grade and rank of #50 for Washington State in healthcare disaster preparedness. This call for cellphone stoppage indicated to me emergency planning for this event fell short.
Fire, paramedics and hospital personnel know they are not equipped to take on a major emergency and steps must be taken: we need back-up, shared and exercised communication tools for when the cell towers go out or are over-taxed, like during the Seahawks parade; we need to credential responders; we need reliable patient tracking and family reunification systems, management of volunteers, and training and coordination of healthcare providers and responders to name only a few.
Let’s walk through a recent minor emergency; Nov. 21, 2013, a three-alarm fire and subsequent hospital-wide power outage at Swedish Edmonds. No one was injured and hospital services came back on line fairly rapidly thanks to the diligence of hospital personnel working round the clock together with Fire/EMS crews. That said, many of the same weaknesses in communications, tracking, command protocols, emergency response plans, hospital emergency preparedness became evident.
THIRTEEN YEARS since 9/11 and millions of dollars later spent nationally, why are we still unprepared for emergencies?
To help answer some of this, I had lunch with retired Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore when in New Orleans last month while attending a disaster preparedness conference. You may recall he was the nightly face on CNN, heading the response effort to Katrina in 2005. While in conversation, I asked his definition of resilience. He did not respond with the standard dictionary language of “the ability to return to normal.” Instead, touching his chest he said, “Resilience comes from within. It does not come from the outside.”
He further clarified that an individual, an organization, even a community must have the wherewithal to be self-reliant. You cannot wait for outside agency or government rescue. He believes the tendency Americans have to depend on outsider help stems from the reliance on tools such as a smartphone. “Whenever anyone encounters any kind of challenge or hurdle, they no longer problem-solve independently. They reach for a laptop or Google to solve their every problem…or wait for the government to solve it for them.”
Those of us trained in emergency preparedness know the government will not be able to help for at least a week during a major emergency, and every community and family should be prepared for that.
Alarmingly absent from the disaster preparedness discussion are the Snohomish County Medical Society and the Washington State Medical Association. Neither organization offers any acknowledgement of the need for hospital or provider preparation in their publications or meetings, as if the risks do not exist or because they do not see disaster response as a healthcare issue, even in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Suggested required reading for these organizations is ‘Five Days at Memorial’, by Sheri Fink, about the avoidable hospital chaos post-Katrina.
Catastrophic emergencies rumble forth like a runaway train without brakes, plowing through one community after another, including Boston’s marathon bombing, West, Texas’s fertilizer plant explosion, Pennsylvania train derailment, the Midwest’s tornadoes, eastern seaboard Hurricane Sandy, blizzards and power failures. Bad things happen and will continue to happen. What can we, here in quiet little Edmonds, do to be ready and more resilient?
Each installment I will give a tip to improve your family’s resilience and a tip to move our community toward an “A” in emergency preparedness.
#1: Personal preparedness empowerment: Even when cellphone voice capability fails due to over-taxed towers, text messaging can still get through. The key to personally seeking help all the way to the larger overall coordination of response and accurate messaging to the public is communication. Communication fails, the response fails.
Bonus tip: Be sure your loved ones know an out-of-town/state (OOT/s) contact to use as a shared check-in point in case all phone systems are down due to over-usage. Long-distance lines will remain available despite local system overload. My family knows to check with my friend Charlie in Pennsylvania if it should ever be necessary to find each other in a catastrophic disaster….Please don’t call Charlie. Set up your own OOT contact.
More to come…stay tuned.
Dr. Robert Mitchell, an Edmonds resident for 30 years, is board certified in Disaster Medicine and OB/GYN and maintains an avid interest in disaster response planning volunteering all his time. He has worked with Joint Base Lewis McChord, hospitals, law enforcement and the fire service in disaster response planning and exercises. Additionally, he is the medical director for the SnoCO Fire District 1 Disaster Medicine Project, a collaborative effort aimed at improving community resilience to disaster. Dr. Mitchell attends the Region 1 Healthcare Coalition that serves the 10 hospitals in the 5 counties north of Seattle as well as the Emergency Management committee at Swedish Edmonds Hospital and is an instructor in Basic and Advanced Disaster Life Support.