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Highlights | Be ready to face any disaster or emergency

  • September is National Preparedness Month.
  • There are things you can do at work and at home to prepare for just about any emergency or disaster.
  • Keep things simple — and keep panic at bay — so you can respond quickly in a crisis.

September is National Preparedness Month — a time to emphasize the importance of being prepared for emergencies or disasters.

This year’s national theme, “Take Control in 1, 2, 3,” focuses on the three simple steps everyone can take to be ready if there’s an emergency:

  • Assess your needs
  • Make a plan
  • Engage your support network

Danica Little, UW Medicine preparedness director, oversaw the health system’s enterprise response to COVID-19. She’s now focused on building a systemwide emergency operations plan.

Little says the three steps outlined during this year’s National Preparedness Month are key to an emergency response in all situations. But, she says, effectively responding to an emergency or disaster at work begins with having a plan at home.

“Family is often the first thing people think about in an emergency,” Little says. “In healthcare we have a responsibility to our patients and their loved ones. They are counting on us. Having a personal plan first helps you to meet your responsibility at work.”

With a personal plan in place, the next step for success at work is knowing what resources you have available.

Jasmine Johnson, UW Medicine hospital emergency manager, works alongside Little. Together, they develop resources and plans to ensure the system and all hospitals meet Joint Commission requirements and maintain operations in the face of large or small disasters and emergencies.

Johnson says effective communication is a big part of successful emergency response.

“Where people go to get information is different based on what’s happening and what we’re responding to,” Johnson says. “It’s important that you work with your supervisor to understand your role during a disaster and ensure there are clear lines of communication.”

Along with email and The Huddle, the University of Washington offers two subscription-based communications tools designed to keep you informed about campus emergencies (learn more and register in the links below).

Little and Johnson are just two of the many people across UW Medicine who are focused daily on emergency preparedness. Below are top tips from UW Medicine emergency preparedness experts.

Get familiar with existing policies and plans

Mike Jennings, who oversees emergency management for IT services, says hospitals and healthcare facilities are the backbone of any community.

“We must be able to overcome a disaster while still serving our patients and community,” Jennings says. “Teams at UW Medicine have worked hard to develop emergency response plans for their business areas. Employees should be familiar with the preparedness plan for their area and know what to do in the event of an emergency.”

Cassidy Modlin, senior emergency preparedness specialist for Valley Medical Center, agrees.

“One crucial aspect employees should consider when it comes to emergency preparedness is having a clear understanding of the workplace’s emergency procedures and protocols,” says Modlin. “This includes knowing evacuation routes, assembly points and how to access emergency resources.”

Always have a backup plan

David Manley, program safety officer with Airlift Northwest, says that, when it comes to emergency preparedness, you should always plan for alternatives.

“I like to say, ‘Hope for the best, but plan for the worst,’ and that goes for virtually every emergency we can prepare for,” Manley says. “Don’t necessarily rely on things we use in daily life, because they could potentially be affected, too.”

For example, Manley says, relying on cell phones may be unrealistic in cases where the cell signal is unreliable or the power is out.

“It’s important to prepare for emergencies (whether small or large) with an assumption that you may have to use a backup,” says Manley. “This is especially important for friends and family who may have difficulty accessing or using technology or other services. We need to think about how disasters and emergencies affect us differently.”

Keep things simple

“Preparedness is a journey,” says Hal Ungerleider, emergency manager for UW Medical Center. “Start today and start small. You can build a go-bag, a communication plan or learn about disasters that could impact your neighborhood.”

Manley adds that people tend to overestimate their ability to think critically and quickly during a true emergency.

“Because of this, it’s important to plan with simplicity in mind,” says Manley. “Try to make things as easy and convenient as possible — especially accessing emergency supplies like sterile water stores and stockpiled medication.”

Make things personal

Jennings agrees with Little and says that everyone should have a personal preparedness plan.

“The American Red Cross has some great tips on what we should have in our personal preparedness kits,” Jennings says.

Sara Mohamed, infrastructure and communication administrator with UW Medicine Primary Care and Population Health, says having a personal preparedness plan is especially important if you have young children or elderly family members who depend on you.

“I make sure I have enough food and water at home that could last for a week,” Mohamed says. “My family knows that I am an essential staff member, and they understand that in the event of an emergency, I might not be able to be home with them and that I might be deployed where needed.”

Don’t panic

Manley says panicking in an emergency prevents someone’s ability to make good, quick decisions when they matter the most.

“In the face of a disaster, knowing you are ready can alleviate stress and allow you to focus on your responsibilities, aiding in a quicker recovery for both you, your colleagues, and our patients,” says Ungerleider.

Joel Smith, emergency preparedness specialist with Valley Medical Center, says the key to keeping calm during an emergency is the 5 Ps: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Taking the time to make an emergency plan now will help you stay cool in the moment.

“Remaining calm in any emergency will keep your head clear and help you make better decisions more quickly,” Smith says.

Another tip? Practice.

“One of the best ways to prepare is to visualize the necessary steps you may need to take should you find yourself in a disaster. Walk through the scenario and visualize during a “blue sky day” when things are perfect, this will give you the best opportunity for success should you find yourself in a situation that calls for action,” says Anita Gould, emergency preparedness and safety manager at Harborview Medical Center. “This is why participating in disaster drills and exercises is a critical component of emergency preparedness.”

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Jennings says his experiences have shown that, during an emergency, communications is the main priority after employee safety.

“If we are impacted by a disaster, we will need to respond promptly, accurately and confidently in the aftermath,” Jennings says. “Know how to contact your team members and managers. This tip also applies to personal preparedness. Have contact information stored in your phone as well as on paper. Make sure that family members know who to call.”

And, Jennings says, it’s important to remember that text messaging is usually more reliable during a disaster than cell phone calls.

“We know that being prepared saves lives and it starts with having a plan that supports you, your family, and your community,” says Ungerleider.