- Associated Press - Sunday, August 16, 2015

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - When the tornado sirens go off, people know to seek shelter in a basement and away from windows, but that option isn’t always available inside a hospital.

The windows are large, patients can’t move themselves, elevators aren’t an option for those on top floors and visitors don’t know where to go.

During tornado season, Decatur’s two hospitals are especially at risk when storms hit the area, so staff constantly monitor local weather and regularly revisit and practice their emergency plans.

“We do drills at least twice a year for any number of hazards,” said Cindy Jenkins, the director of regulatory compliance, oversees emergency preparations at Decatur Memorial Hospital.

DMH and St. Mary’s Hospital follow a similar system of announcing severe weather watches and warnings through the hospital overhead or through the computer system. Staff, some of whom are storm spotters, will also decide based on the storm’s location if a hospital specific tornado warning is needed.

“That’s when people know, OK this is serious we have to jump to action,” Jenkins said.

Bill Wood, St. Mary’s emergency medical service coordinator, has six radios in his office connecting him to other hospitals, storm spotters and emergency agencies. He also gets weather alerts on his cellphone and several outside agencies will contact him during severe weather in a system that is meant to be redundant with built in backups. He monitors radar during severe weather and decides if St. Mary’s is in a storm’s path.

“We’ve had to make that call several times in the past,” Wood said. “We’ve had some near misses here.

He referenced the April 1996 tornadoes that came through Decatur that barely missed both hospitals. The twisters injured 62 people and left behind millions of dollars in damage.

Buildings with large concentrations of people in small areas, such as hospitals or schools, where people can’t escape quickly need to take extra care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hospitals nationwide learned by example when the hospital in Joplin, Mo., was hit by a tornado in May 2011.

Some hospital departments are naturally more protected than others. For example, most intensive care unit rooms at St. Mary’s don’t have windows, and neither do the operating rooms at DMH. But in other rooms, curtains are closed and staff move patients and visitors into inner hallways.

Those who can’t be moved quickly are covered with blankets and towels. However, the lobbies, with large walls of windows and numerous visitors are especially vulnerable.

“When we get a warning for St. Mary’s, we have minutes to respond,” Wood said.

Sheriff’s Lt. James Root, the Macon County Emergency Management Agency coordinator, said the hospitals are on the list of agencies he deals closely with before and after storms. If the National Weather Service holds a severe weather conference call, a sign of possible significant damages, representatives from the hospitals are included.

“So they’re getting the first-hand knowledge of how bad the event will be,” Root said.

No one likes to think of what would happen if a local hospital were hit like Joplin’s hospital, but staff members are prepared for the worst.

“If we were to get hit, we could have a tent city set up outside within three hours,” Wood said.

Ambulance traffic would be redirected, backup generators would kick on, oxygen lines would be shut down and first responders would focus efforts on the hospital since it’s considered critical infrastructure. Jenkins said health care providers will always step up during an emergency.

“It’s because we drill, but there’s also the type of people who work in hospitals and who are drawn to this vocation,” she said. “They want to help, that’s what they do.”


Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, https://bit.ly/1gQVS22


Information from: Herald & Review, https://www.herald-review.com

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