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Treatment in the Eye of the Storm – Eyewitness Account

Emergency Preparedness Steps for the Behavioral Healthcare Community

Hurricane Harvey is on the way - start preparing yourself and your staff. 

By James S. Flowers, PhD, LPC-S, Louise Stanger, Ed.d., LCSW, CDWF, CIP, Roger Porter, & Angela Harris, MSW Candidate

Many of you know, I travel once a month to Driftwood Recovery to run their courageous Family Program. Driftwood is located in the hill country of Austin and the warm rolling hills and inviting terrain bring peace and serenity to those that pass their gates as they begin to heal from chronic pain, alcohol and other co-occurring disorders.

I arrived bright eyed, energized and excited to meet staff and clients who were naturally anxious that their loved ones were flying in, driving in from Arizona, Washington, California, New York, Corpus Christi, Minnesota, Louisiana etc. And then the news hit. Tropical Storm Harvey was barreling down towards the Texas coast! Silence, and then a wise administrative move. Family Program is cancelled, phone calls made to travelers about to board airplanes and get into their cars to come for an important weekend event with their loved ones in treatment.

What to do in an emergency situation became the paramount concern along with managing client disappointment over their loved ones not able to come and their fears and concerns over the approaching storm. Staff jumped into a courageous recovery mode as I imagine all other healthcare and other behavioral health centers did also.

To prepare for the tropical storm, Dr. Flowers made immediate plans for Driftwood Recovery, which he details below:

EMERGENCY TRANSPORTATION – ensure maintenance is up to date and gas tanks are full in all emergency vehicles on campus. This provides adequate transportation in the event the facility requires evacuation.

FOOD SUPPLIES – check if there is sufficient food for all staff and current count of residents on campus 2 for five days; if insufficient, purchase more supplies. This creates a backup plan for sustenance our bodies need to keep going, especially in times of emergency.

FACILITIES/UTILITIES

Generator – run a check on the generator to determine if it can accommodate all operations on campus for a week or more. Also check all alarms, fire extinguishers, and secure windows for hurricane specifications.

Water Supply – check if the water cooler tanks are full and if there is an ample supply available to accommodate staff expected on campus as well as residents. It’s also important to determine how your water source may be affected due to the nature of your water provider (provide by the city, septic system, etc.).

Phone-Line – if working on internet-based phone connection, purchase a hardline phone to be plugged into a fax line in the event the phone systems go down.

Power – do your best to determine if you can expect a power outage and prepare accordingly with alternative food preparations, suitable flashlights, etc.

STAFF

Staff meeting – Plan a staff meeting to discuss emergency instructions, staff schedule changes, and program changes in preparation for the storm. Emphasize the importance of patient as well as staff safety – it’s important for staff to know the value of keeping clients safe as well as the fact that their safety is a priority. In this emergency situation, I made a point to meet with my staff and confirm the value of safety of both patient and staff: “Our clients’ safety is paramount, but our employee safety is just as important. No employee will be expected to drive in weather conditions that are not safe as identified by local traffic authorities.”

Staff schedules – make a plan for additional staff to stay on property as an additional safety measure. All staff should be prepared to work double or extra hours in the event that any employee coming on shift is not able to get to site due to weather conditions. Write out the schedule of on-call staff and staff working different shift in preparation for the storm. Share this new schedule with all staff to ensure a clear flow of communication. We did this with our staff at Driftwood and it has cleared up any questions and concerns about upcoming travel to make a shift or having enough staff on campus.

Staff responsibilities – remind staff of their unique role in this emergency situation while working with clients. I told my staff that all staff are responsible for client safety at all times and flow of program scheduled activities.

Programming changes – inform staff of changes to schedule or programming in safety preparations regarding the weather conditions. This includes specifying where programming will occur in case of power outages, lack of water supply, etc.

Written emergency preparedness plan – Ensure all staff have a copy of the emergency preparedness plan and that clients can have a copy if they so choose. This provides staff with thorough instructions in response to a variety of possible emergency situations such as power outage, water outage, etc. Make sure to include detailed information about other facilities with evacuation agreements in the area in case of the need for quick evacuation.

Accommodations – For staff expected to work double or extra shifts, provide local lodging and accommodation if at all possible. This ensures safety of staff from having to travel in the hazardous weather conditions while covering all necessary shifts and avoiding other staff members from having to travel from their homes in inclement weather as well.

COMMUNICATION – communication plays a vital role in the event of an emergency. Communicate clearly and calmly with all of your staff and clients and with detailed instructions. Make sure to also emphasize the importance of communication to staff and clients. This includes detailing communications expectations. I told my staff, “Communication and teamwork is key. You are expected to stay in touch with local radar, weather reports, each other, and be available for Clinical staff, Director, and Ownership”.

The key factors to keep in mind in this type of emergency are safety and communication. Safety is the number one priority for all clients and staff. All other decisions defer to the priority of safety and avoiding all hazardous situations. Communication also keeps everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction for emergency preparedness. Emotions run high during emergencies and hazardous weather circumstance, so make sure to keep calm and communicate with confidence to your staff and clients. Your calm attitude and plan for preparedness will provide a soothing effect for staff and clients alike. Above all, keep updated on the weather forecasts and stay safe!

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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