Why A Severe Weather Watch Should Call For Action

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We recently wrote about the need for trigger events in an emergency plan. A severe weather watch should trigger a series of just-in-time preparedness actions at your facility.
We conduct many tabletop exercises with healthcare facilities. Frequently we use severe weather as a scenario, primarily because it is one of the few emergencies that gives warning. Often the scenario for Module One is centered around the announcement of a severe weather watch. We’ve seen some creative decisions made in Module One, but we’ve seen some frustrating inaction. (I mean… it’s an exercise. What do you THINK is going to happen in Module Two?)
First, we frequently hear the confusion between a severe weather “watch” and a “warning.” The best explanation is by meteorologist Brad Panovich, who shows these photos:

A “watch” means that the meteorological ingredients are, or will be, present, for dangerous weather to occur. Changes in barometric pressure, air temperatures, etc. are or will occur in combinations that can create the severe weather. They are often issued 12 to 24 hours in advance, precisely so that we can have advance notice about a possible event.
A “warning” means it is now occurring. The flooding, severe winds, tornados, or whatever weather is now happening near you. This is now time to take shelter, not to begin planning.
You should consider revising your procedures so that they are triggered by a severe weather watch. Procedures can include:
  • Heightened awareness, such as assigning someone to continuously monitoring local conditions and weather radio.
  • Establish Incident Command and appoint staff as needed. Identify who, among available staff, should be prepared to take on key roles in the incident staff for the first two operating periods.
  • Alerting all key staff so they can check their supplies, staffing, and scheduling for the coming days.
  • Checking your schedule for the next 24 – 72 hours and consider canceling or rescheduling events that might put people in danger should the weather occur.
  • Moving up certain activities before the weather will occur. For example, one hospice we exercised accelerated visits to high-priority patients that were scheduled for the next morning, knowing they might not be able to travel after the weather hit.
  • Alerting residents, patients, etc. letting them know you are aware, encouraging them to take their own precautions, and reassuring them that you are protecting them.
  • Recalling staff or encouraging them to show up early so that they don’t have to travel in the bad weather, and so they can take similar precautions at home.
  • Calling vendors and moving up, or delaying, deliveries so that they don’t occur during the bad weather, and so you have the necessary supplies in case roads are dangerous after the storm.
  • Securing vulnerable outdoor equipment; bring in or chain down benches, garbage cans, etc. that could become projectiles in severe wind, or which could clog water runoff routes and aggravate flooding.
  • Reviewing procedures to follow in the event a watch elevates to a warning.
  • Testing the generator, if you have one, and making sure it’s ready to go.
  • Charging, testing, and distributing radios or alternate communications equipment.
  • Pre-staging repair and recovery supplies. As one client put it: “Let’s get the plywood now; afterward, everyone else will be at Lowe’s trying to buy it!”
  • Considering relocation of patients or residents from highly vulnerable locations to less vulnerable ones.
And, what if it doesn’t materialize?
Congratulations, you’ve just conducted a successful, no-notice full-scale exercise! Document what went well and especially identify what didn’t. Revise your plans, policies, and procedures to reflect what you have learned.
We’re all afraid to be the boy who cried, “Wolf!” but we should never be ashamed to take our responsibilities to our patients, staff, and facility, and to the community at large seriously. They all expect us to weather the storm. Don’t wait for the cupcakes to arrive!
If you want help reviewing your plans, policies, and procedures for pre-emergency actions, just ask.

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