Sharp HealthCare: Before the Plane Crash

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

In January 2009, all eyes were on the Hudson River when a plane flying out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport crash-landed in the river after striking a flock of geese. Thanks to fast acting by the pilots, all 155 passengers survived, with few major injuries. Trouble started afterwards, though, because of a communication breakdown between airlines and hospitals.

After the crash, victims were sent to multiple hospitals in New York and New Jersey. At the request of family and loved ones, US Airways called the hospitals to figure out where each passenger had been sent. However, fear and misunderstanding of HIPAA laws prevented the facilities from revealing that information, causing more distress for people wanting to find their loved ones and see if they were all right.

The disaster spurred officials at San Diego International Airport (SAN) and local hospitals to join forces to create an emergency preparedness partnership. A year after the crash, SAN and San Diego hospitals were holding regular meetings together, providing training, and developing contact sheets of whom to call should a crisis occur.

Sharon Carlson, RN, is director of emergency preparedness at Sharp HealthCare and is a regular attendee of SAN’s emergency prep meetings.

“I think it’s a great partnership, and I think cities with airports try to do it,” she says. “It opens the lines of communication and keeps everybody on the same page. But it takes some time, work, and energy and depends on who’s got resources available. We just decided that it was important.”

“If they haven’t done so already, I would highly encourage [airports] to reach out to their local hospitals to establish that relationship,” says Susie Preiser, manager of emergency preparedness at SAN.

The beginning
Preiser says that after the crash—dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson”—a colleague of hers at US Airways reached out to University of California San Diego Medical Center (UCSD) to come up with an emergency standard operating procedure (SOP).

“She [the US Airways representative] wanted to make sure that in San Diego that airlines had a good relationship with the hospitals,” Preiser says. “And that the hospitals would know after a plane crash or [a similar incident], when the airlines call to ask for passenger information, they’re not asking for the person’s condition. They just need to know if they’re at that hospital—so they can do passenger tracking and share that information with the families.”

The official at UCSD Medical showed the SOP to Preiser, who asked if there was a way to make it more universally applicable, for use by all the airlines. A generic version was made, and UCSD reached out to all the other hospitals and asked if they would participate as well.

“I was very much impressed by the fact they were willing to be so passionate about it and reach out to all the other hospitals on the airport and airlines’ behalf and get them all on board,” she says.

“On the airport side, quite honestly it was very easy for us,” she continues. “The airlines were all very interested and trying to streamline passenger tracking. I can’t speak for UCSD and how hard they had to work to get all the hospitals on board. But the representative from UCSD was very passionate about this, very persistent, and very successful—she got all the hospitals on board with what she was doing.”

The partnership between SAN, airlines, and local hospitals is now eight years old. In addition to creating an emergency contact list, hospitals have a seat at SAN’s monthly emergency planning meeting with airlines and airport stakeholders.

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