Remembering Winter Storm Jonas

This member-only article appears in the February issue of Patient Safety Monitor Journal.

Consult your emergency management plan when facing an impending storm, and update this plan with lessons learned after each storm to avoid grappling with problems that may already have solutions. This is just one of the lessons reinforced for hospitals that were impacted by Winter Storm Jonas (aka “Snowzilla”) back in January 2016.

It’s been a few years since Jonas smothered the East Coast, so here are a few facts to refresh your memory:
14 states received over a foot of snow. Seven of them saw over 30 inches of snowfall, including places like New York’s JFK airport and Allentown, Pennsylvania.
West Virginia received 42 inches of snow.
At the time, Jonas was the biggest single snowstorm on record for at least six locations.
11 states declared a state of emergency, and 13,000 flights were canceled.
More than 80 million people were affected by Jonas, with at least 55 deaths attributed to it.

As the storm approached
First word of the storm’s intensity and potential snowfall began on a Monday. The same day, the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) began sending messages to staff about storm preparations, says Leonard Taylor, senior vice president of operations and support services at the medical center, located in downtown Baltimore.

“The initial message was directed at individuals and their personal readiness,” says Taylor. “The emergency manager continued to monitor weather forecasts and provide updates to the hospital leaders” as the week progressed.

By Wednesday, the senior vice president responsible for emergency management notified the logistic section chiefs on the hospital incident command team to make sure all operational leaders had connected with suppliers and were stocking extra food, oxygen, linen, ice melt, and other essentials in anticipation of the storm.

He didn’t know it at the time, but at 29 inches, Baltimore was about to have its snowfall record broken.
The first items assessed in such events are always staffing, facilities, and supplies, followed by command center preparation for the staff Wellness and Transportation department, says Kevin Mell, vice president for human and facility resources at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney, Maryland.

As part of the preparatory system, daily calls went out among the 10 hospitals in the MedStar medical system to conduct status checks and determine if any location had unmet needs. At MedStar Health, “the ability to share and tap into larger resources is available.”

Unpredictable challenges
With the fickle nature of weather, planning is always imprecise, and a few challenges arose at UMMC during preparation, explains Taylor.

“Given the forecast, we realized we would likely want to provide sleep space in the hospital for employees. It is always a challenge to scale the potential demand and then find adequate space.”

Taylor and his colleagues conducted a brainstorming session with the director of facilities planning to identify a list of potential spaces that could be converted into sleeping areas, ranking their convertibility from easy to difficult.

“UMMC is very fortunate to have been through similar emergencies in the past and to have learned from those experiences,” he says. “The Emergency Operations Plan includes a thought-out human resources policy about staffing in emergencies and plans for providing sleep space and food vouchers. We have learned to consult the playbook first before we solve the problem anew.”

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