As Hurricane Isaac headed toward the Gulf Coast region in the end of August, residents were figuring out to ways evacuate, and EMS operations were swinging into full gear in their efforts to receive for back-up assistance. With the potential of a major storm hitting a wide swath of land, officials initiated emergency plans and waited out the weather early on.
On Aug. 26, with the storm just two days away, Acadian Ambulance in Lafayette, La., activated its Evacuation Response Operations Center (EROC), a system borne out of responses to previous storms, to specifically handle the evacuations of healthcare facilities.
“Compared to other storms of the past 10 to 15 years, it was not one of the most challenging we’ve had,” says Jerry Romero, senior vice president of operations at Acadian. “But, we had to execute our disaster plan.” Part of this plan included having 40 additional ambulances in service.
The EROC system was created after hurricanes Gustav, Katrina and Ike struck the regions Acadian serves. Evacuating healthcare facilities and nursing homes is a major part in the storm preparation process. To meet that need, Acadian activates a separate communications center to handle only those types of evacuations, rather than have those calls bog down the normal 9-1-1 system.
For instance, during Hurricane Katrina, Acadian evacuated more than 2,000 patients. During the first day of the EROC operation for Hurricane Isaac, the company transported 150 people.
Hurricanes are challenging for EMS organizations. Officials are faced with calling in extra staff at a time where the staffers’ families and homes may be in danger. This happens at the same time that government officials are asking residents to evacuate the area where first responders are being sent to wait. The result, however, can sometimes be a shortage of employees physically unable or unwilling to return to work.
“Our employees are pretty hurricane savvy,” says Romero. “At the beginning of hurricane season, we put out our employee update to remind them of the points to have a family plan prepared, to know what you’re going to do, and have a three-day supply of clothes and food in case you don’t get home. We get a lot of people who call in and volunteer.”
Officials at SunStar EMS in Pinellas County, Fla., like others, began altering their hurricane response plans in 2004 and have upgraded them after every storm since then.
SunStar’s current plan includes a mandatory callback for all employees, and it also includes provisions to make sure employees’ family concerns are taken into consideration. For instance, six responders and an ambulance are placed in 20 hotels throughout SunStar’s response area—and geographically near the responders’ homes to assist families if needed.
Two must be on duty at all times, which gives the other providers a chance to check on their families. Another 250 go to the company headquarters.
Bringing everyone in inevitably involves logistical challenges for managers, such as the feeding and housing of staff. And once a storm begins, there will ultimately come a point where the crews can’t go out.
“We’ve kind of learned from other hurricanes that have happened,” says SunStar Vice President Mark Postma. “We’ve tried to be as flexible as we can.”
Early on, it appeared the region covered by SunStar might get hit by Hurricane Isaac. However, the storm track went further west. The plan has been tested several times, though it’s been activated only once since its implementation, Postma says.
SunStar was prepared, however, says Richard Schomp, director of operations. The company had already activated special EMS coverage for an event staged for the Republican National Convention on the Sunday before the storm. That coverage, says Schomp, included 14 additional ambulances, extra management and a mass casualty supply vehicle.
“I’d already staffed up the system to handle an extreme amount of volume,” Schomp says. “With the storm coming, we maintained that high amount. It had very little impact, but we were ready.”
Typically, EMS operations experience a large influx of 9-1-1 calls after a storm when residents have no power. Romero says there’s often a jump in heat-related calls, chainsaw cuts and falls from roofs as homeowners work to rebuild.
Getting crews time to rest, especially when they’re stationed over a wide geographical location, is one of the largest challenges, Romero says. However, each storm, Romero says, helps the company prepare for the next one. Hurricane Isaac was no different.
“Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike taught us a lot,” says Romero. “We’ve gotten better every time. We can always improve and will continue to improve after this one.” —Richard Huff, EMT-P
A Word of Encouragement
Editor’s note: Jullette M. Saussy, MD, served with NOEMS during hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. She provided this message to EMS crews responding to Hurricane Issac.
It’s incredibly difficult to be so far away and yet to still feel the deep longing to be right beside each of you as this hurricane approaches. Katrina in 2005, Gustav in 2008, and now Isaac in 2012—all on or about the same day seems more than just statistically impossible.
For those of you who have been through this drill, I know it brings up all kinds of emotions. It has for me, and I’m not even there. For the newest members of the team, take a few lessons from the seasoned men and women of New Orleans EMS (NOEMS.) If they seem on edge, it’s for a reason. Be patient. If they seem emotional, it’s for a reason. Be patient. If they tell you to do something, it’s for a reason. Do it.
You have capable leaders, and they need the team to pull together and perform at their highest capacity. We have one mission and that is to stay safe and to keep our citizens and visitors safe. Stay focused on that, and you will succeed. Thank you for the work you do each day.—Jullette M. Saussy, MD