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Are your employees ready for an emergency?
Personal emergency plans essential part of planning
Effectively preparing for an emergency requires plans that address those emergencies you are likely to experience. In New Hampshire, home health agencies have always been prepared for winter storms that cause treacherous road conditions and loss of power. What caught many New Hampshire agencies off guard in 2005 and 2006 was heavy flooding in many areas that created different situations than those previously experienced.
"Blizzards and other winter weather rarely cause a problem for our agency because most staff members can make it to work," says Claudette Boutin, RN, CEO of The Homemakers Health Services in Rochester, NH. "Weather reports let us know that storms are coming so we have a chance to double up on patients before the storm and we are accustomed to driving in snow, so we can usually get to all of our patients following the storm," she adds.
The heavy floods occurred on a Sunday in 2006 so most staff members were visiting family and some were well away from the agency's home county. "I was visiting my mother four hours south of Rochester so I didn't even realize what was happening," says Boutin. Her agency's emergency preparedness plan worked well, even though it didn't specifically address floods, she points out. "We do have an adult day care service with several buses so the city asked us to help transport seniors to shelters," she says.
In addition to transportation, home health staff members were called upon to check on the patients who were classified "high priority" in an emergency. "When we admit a patient, we classify them as high priority for emergencies if they live alone, if the home has two elderly adults caring for each other, or if they are disabled," says Boutin. "Our staff members helped those patients who needed to evacuate pack their belongings that they needed for the shelter and ensured that they had their medications," she explains. Staff members who transported seniors to the shelters often stayed to volunteer their time, she adds.
The floods washed out roads, caused the evacuation of entire neighborhoods, and affected home health employees more than winter storms, points out Boutin. Employees who found themselves evacuated were unable to come to work until they found safe places for their families, she says. Sometimes, employees had to leave the area to stay with family or friends.
Prepare at home to report to work
Because it is important that employees take care of their own families before they can report to work, Boutin's challenge to her employees in 2007 was to create their own emergency plans. A staff survey asked each employee if they would be willing and able to work after different types of emergencies such as snowstorms or power outages. Employees could answer yes, after personal needs are handled, or no. "The majority of employees answer that after their own personal needs and family needs are handled, they would be willing to work during any type of emergency," says Boutin.
Because home health employees are an important part of a patient's ability to handle an emergency, it is important that employees be able to report to work so they are asked to prepare themselves and their families for an emergency. "This means having an emergency kit in their home that contains three gallons of water for every person, non-perishable food, a manual can-opener, flashlights, extra batteries, and other supplies that might be needed for different situations," says Boutin.
Another aspect of preparing for an emergency is the development of a personal emergency plan. Boutin gave all employees a checklist that guides them through development of their own emergency plan. "The checklist is a series of questions that asks employees questions about their children's school's emergency plan, child care or eldercare in the event of an emergency, and locations of emergency meeting places for family members," she says. Completing the checklist provides employees with a good sense of what needs to be done and what resources are to be used in the event of an emergency, she says.
"We also gave every employee an 'Emergency Readiness and National Security Wheel' that contains tips on how to prepare yourself for a variety of emergencies," says Boutin. "The wheel describes specific preparations for emergencies such as terrorist threat, weather-related emergency, or power outage."
Preparation of their families and their homes for an emergency was the first step in Boutin's emergency preparedness seminars in 2007. The next step for Boutin's employees is preparing themselves for an emergency. "When they arrive at the next series of inservice classes, they will be asked if they prepared their own emergency plans," she explains.
Employees who have done so, receive a Good to Go bag that contains items such as a flashlight, a first-aid kit, a Mylar blanket, a bottle of water, a few energy bars, and a list of other items they need to add. Other items include one change of clothes, copies of important documents, and a copy of their emergency plan with phone numbers they will need, she says. "This bag is for the employee's car so that even if the emergency occurs while they are away from home, they have what they need."
The Good to Go program is part of the Home Care Association of New Hampshire's (HCANH) program that emphasizes the concept that emergency preparedness begins at home, says Susan Young, executive director of HCANH in Concord, NH. "We have been offering programs to home health agencies over the past two years to assess their level of readiness and to help them improve their agency's preparations," she explains. "The Good to Go program was developed when it became obvious that no matter how good your plans are, they will only work if staff are available.
"The program is very low tech, but it is essential," admits Young. "For example, one of the items on the checklist is, 'How do your family members reach each other in an emergency?'" When local phone service isn't available or when areas are evacuated, it is important that there be a contact person located outside the employee's home area so that all family members can check in to let others know they are safe, she explains.
HCANH provides the personal readiness bags for the employees to all agencies along with a sample kit and a list of items that should be placed in the bag. "Some agencies are filling the bags for their employees while others only place a few items in the bag, but everyone includes the list so that employees can fill the bag with what they need," Boutin says.
"We have seen that home health agencies are very conscious of their role in an emergency and most agencies have good plans in place," says Boutin. "We never expected to have our own version of Katrina in the past two years but the experience has helped everyone better plan for emergency situations we might never have considered."
One tip that Boutin offers home health agency managers who are evaluating their emergency preparedness plans is to look carefully at the priority given to emergency planning. "Agencies are struggling to provide good quality services in a time of declining reimbursement so multiple tasks are assigned to managers or supervisors," she says. "This often means that emergency planning becomes part of a to-do list for a person who is already very busy."
"It's important that emergency planning not fall to the bottom of the to-do list because it is an issue that should be continually reviewed, updated, and communicated to employees," she adds.
Emphasizing the personal emergency readiness plan is also important, says Boutin. "It is every home health employee's professional responsibility to be personally prepared for an emergency. It's easy to prepare yourself for an emergency and it doesn't cost anything."
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