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Joplin proves need for disaster plans at local hospitals

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GINA R. HEINE
June 3, 2011

Just days before a tornado nearly destroyed the hospital in Joplin, Mo., nearly 100 Wisconsin hospitals, including Mercy Walworth Hospital, practiced emergency preparedness with the Wisconsin National Guard.


People often think the scenarios in drills will never happen, said Kevin Kennedy, EMS coordinator/emergency manager at Mercy Walworth, but Joplin proved it can happen.


“I think it provides a little vested interest in this emergency planning and preparedness,” he said.


“It’s a reminder to people that (think), ‘Oh geez, do we have to do this drill again? Didn’t we just do this six months ago?’ People start thinking, ‘It could be me in that incident command trying to come up with a solution.’”


St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin took a direct hit May 22 from one of the strongest tornadoes in history.


The nine-story hospital remains standing despite looking like a bomb went off. About 200 staff members and 183 patients were evacuated, and hospital debris was found about 70 miles away.


Five patients and one visitor at the hospital died.


In Wisconsin a few days earlier, the Wisconsin Vigilant Guard exercise included scenarios ranging from tornados and earthquakes to chemical spills and cyber attacks.


Staff at the six-bed Walworth hospital, which is under expansion, had to figure out how to take extra “paper patients” as a result of flooding along the Mississippi River that forced evacuations at several western Wisconsin hospitals.


The hospital already was full, and staff activated their “surge” plan, meaning patients would have to be transferred to local nursing homes, sent to other hospitals or discharged early.


The drills tested statewide, web-based communication software and revealed that more training was needed, Kennedy said.


The hospital’s emergency operation plan will be reviewed to incorporate the expansion to 25 beds, he said.


Emergency planning is underway for St. Mary’s Janesville Hospital, which is scheduled to open in January on Janesville’s east side, said Joan Neeno, director of marketing and public relations.


“There will be training for all employees on drills, on safety issues, disaster preparedness,” she said. “We just don’t have all of that in place just yet.”


The Joint Commission—a national, non-profit organization that certifies hospitals— requires two emergency management drills a year.


The steel, concrete and brick construction of St. Mary’s is designed to withstand heavy loads and winds, Neeno said.


While no building is completely disaster-proof, she said, the building would remain standing as seen in Joplin. Glass is the issue, and tempered glass was chosen because it shatters instead of splintering into shards, she said.


“If a heavier wind does hit it, it’s safer for patients and staff,” she said.


So how prepared are local hospital officials for a severe tornado?


“Better than we would be without doing (drills),” Kennedy said.


Officials try to prepare for everything, but there’s always something that will cause a problem, he said.


“I think every bit you do helps you and makes it go a little better or makes it screw up a little less,” he said.



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