Safety First

By Gary Kleeblatt

In healthcare, it’s not a question of if the next disaster will strike – it’s when.

Hartford HealthCare (HHC) has dealt with hurricanes, blizzards, violence, water main breaks, fires and much more over the last few years.

The organization has gone from separate, “siloed” emergency management approaches to a much more cohesive system, culminating with the second-ever system- wide emergency drill. This followed a series of local drills involving infectious diseases and other real-life scenarios.

Emergency management operations continue to mature, from the type of drills to technology used to communicate internally and externally. A few clicks of a mouse can send phone, text and email messages to the entire HHC workforce.

“Safety is a core value at Hartford HealthCare, and being prepared for whatever comes our way is crucial to our ability to keep patients, their loved ones and staff safe,” said Tom Vaccarelli, vice president of Real Estate, Construction, Facilities, and Emergency Management. “We are relied upon to be the community’s safety net, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

This “safety first” attitude prevails at all levels of the organization. Recently, 30 HHC staffers travelled to Alabama for a week of training at a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) facility. The benefits extended beyond basic disaster training, said Patrick Turek, HHC director of emergency management.

“It developed a cohesive team among a group of people some of whom are new to emergency preparedness,” Turek said. “Building relationships will serve us well when an emergency occurs. Being collaborative means more safety for our patients.”

A crisis, he pointed out, is no time for introductions. “You are asking someone for help in a critical moment, and you get better responses when you are asking someone who knows you, when trust and a relationship have been established.”

The realistic, immersive experience in Alabama and ongoing training here is forging that bond, Turek said.

The FEMA facility offers the nation’s only full-scale hospital for emergency preparedness training. “It’s a normal hospital and actors play the part of patients” with makeup and realistic-looking injuries, Turek said. A number of incidents — an earthquake, hazardous material release and smallpox outbreak — played out.

The HHC contingent included facility, maintenance, nursing, public safety and security and emergency managers. Most have primary responsibilities that do not involve emergency management, which is important when a real crisis emerges because everyone needs to be agile enough to deal with what is at hand, Turek said.

“It brings a renewed sense of purpose, which is necessary because these incidents are time-sensitive and you never know when they will occur,” he said.

The impact of the trip ripples beyond those who participated in March.

“People teach, coach and mentor others, and now we are recruiting a second cohort (for FEMA training),” Turek said. “You build strength for preparedness.”

Such preparations are vital, because a crisis does not announce itself ahead of time, and he said “it is human nature to have a sense of denial.”

“All of our training brings an intense critical focus and makes us better emergency responders,” Turek said. “More than ever before, everyone is really locked in and taking everything very seriously.”

An Ebola drill at the Windham Hospital is an example of emergency preparedness. Photo by Jeff Evans

Intense training prepares staff for the real thing

Thirty Hartford HealthCare (HHC) staff members spent a week participating in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training in Alabama. Here’s what some had to say about the experience and how it will help them in their jobs and lives.

Pat Srenaski

Infection control and emergency management coordinator, HHC At Home

It greatly increased my confidence. When I was done with the training, I felt I could handle anything. We are now the experts,” she said of those who attended the training. “It’s our job to teach others to understand the incident command system so we are always successful.”

Scott Cornell

Facilities manager, Natchaug Hospital

“It is a real hospital,” he said of the former U.S. Army facility where the training occurred. “It puts you in a life-like situation where you have to deal with an emergency. If that were to happen in one of our hospitals, it’s like you have done it before. I have a better understanding of the incident command system and that brings it closer to the top of my list of priorities.”

Gen Boas

East Region manager, public safety and emergency management/ regional safety officer

“It was the most intense and best training I have ever been to — they made it so real,” she said. “Having the full week gives you the time to make it muscle memory, so when something does happen, God forbid, you just know what to do. We came back so ready to go. It allowed me to see what it’s supposed to look like so I can educate my team.”

Craig Stegmaier

The Hospital of Central Connecticut, public safety operations manager, Central Region emergency management coordinator

“It was as realistic as it could possibly be, and building relationships with colleagues across HHC will be a huge benefit because, in a real emergency, we will need to work as a team.”