While the DC/Maryland/Virginia region rallied laudably in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack at the Pentagon in 2001, the disaster revealed the need for a major overhaul in emergency management procedures.
The cooperation was there, but what we all did on 9/11 was picked up our cell phones and called one of our colleagues at another hospital to say, Whats going on? What have you heard? What do you know? Have you received any patients? That was all done by word of mouth, said Susan Ohnmacht, RN, MSN, MS, NEA-BC, associate CNO and director of critical care at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she also serves as emergency management coordinator. Luckily [now] we have a much better infrastructure for being able to communicate with our colleagues across the city.
Readily available grant money post-9/11 helped Sibley improve its response procedures, update training and equipment to better adapt to disaster situations and build a garage structure that can double as a mass holding or decontamination area. Perhaps even more important, Ohnmacht said, the influx of federal funds has helped the region adopt an all-hazards approach to emergency management a universal system that is effective no matter what the root cause of the disaster with a centralized incident command structure via the DC Emergency Healthcare Coalition, known as DCEHC.
Through the coalition, a system now is in place to facilitate cooperation, collaboration, communication and coordination of resources among all healthcare facilities in the area.Nurses and healthcare professionals at Sibley Memorial Hospital take part in regular emergency management drills.
During a disaster, individual organizations can share information at a common website about how many beds they have available and what resources they can share.
Also, with a central communication source, everyone receives the latest information at the same time. Theres no need to phone a friend.
That system, and similar systems across the country, evolved over the last 10 years, said Katie Brewer, RN, MSN, who focuses on disaster preparedness policies as part of her job as a senior policy analyst with the American Nurses Associations Department of Nursing Practice and Policy.
We really felt in the first few years after 9/11, that healthcare was marginalized in terms of disaster preparedness, she said. The initial focus was on man-made disasters similar to 9/11 and a guns, guards, and gates response, emphasizing law enforcement and security. As the all-hazards mentality really started to take more of a hold, public health, nursing, medicine and EMS all started to sit around the table and talk about the issues in a very collaborative way. Its really changed in a good way, I think, for the health and safety of the community, having not just the security mindset.
Friends in need
That collaboration is evident even among historical rivals. In most arenas, Sibley and Georgetown University Hospital are competitors. But when it comes to emergency management of disasters, they are the best of friends, said James D. Ott, RN, emergency manager in the GUH Office of Emergency Management.
If I do a disaster drill, the Sibley people come over here and evaluate, he said. When they do a drill, I go over there. We are not trying to hide proprietary secrets. We are in this together, literally, so we work that way. Were actually working together and seriously supporting one another not just superficially looking like it. We really do, on a very deep level, support each other.
Despite great strides in preparedness since 9/11, challenges remain. Attention to emergency management waxes and wanes with the disaster headlines. The behind-the-scenes activities that dont make the headlines need to be sustained to make sure responses are optimal when the time comes. Pharmaceuticals need to be kept current. Equipment needs to be maintained. All personnel need to be kept up-to-date about the latest emergency management procedures.
But overall, Ohnmacht is confident that Sibley and others in the DCEHC are ready for the next emergency, no matter what that may be. If you train well, it doesnt matter whether its 9/11 or the New Orleans flood or a snowstorm, she said. You cant predict [what the threat will be], but you can be ready.
Anne Federwisch is a freelance writer.