New Mexico hospital puts disaster plan to the test

September 7, 2011

From the C-Suite: F. Curtis Smith
Modern Healthcare
September 5, 2011

Disaster plans. All hospitals have them, but few of us, thankfully, are forced to implement them. At Los Alamos (N.M.) Medical Center, the immeasurable value of a good disaster plan was demonstrated recently as fires threatened to consume our hospital and community.

It all began on June 26, a Sunday, when a tree fell on a power line, sparking the first flames of what is known as the Las Conchas fire, the largest fire in New Mexico history. Over the next 36 days, the fire would char nearly 160,000 acres surrounding Los Alamos.

As the fire began, phone calls poured in to our hospital. Where was the fire going? Could the hospital stay open? Our team activated the initial stages of our disaster plan. We sent our ventilator patients to other facilities as a precautionary measure, connected with authorities monitoring the blaze and began preparing for the worst.

On Monday morning, the flames were spreading out of control, and it became clear: the Las Conchas fire was headed straight for our town. We held meetings every two hours to ensure effective communications, moved our remaining patients to safety, and coordinated with Los Alamos County to evacuate the community. By 3 p.m., LAMC and all of Los Alamos were officially closed.

Over the next week, we held daily meetings and press conferences to keep community members informed and updated our staff via a 24-hour hotline. We organized food and shelter for the county’s crisis team, firefighters and EMS unit. To treat fire-related injuries, we worked with the state of New Mexico to turn our emergency room into a triage unit.

Once the fire was controlled, we partnered with our community and our parent company, LifePoint Hospitals, Brentwood, Tenn., to coordinate a miraculous hospital restoration. The county could not lift the mandatory evacuation order until LAMC reopened. In just 36 hours, we replaced all medications exposed to improper temperatures, recalibrated every piece of equipment and scrubbed our floors and walls clean of smoke. At 6 p.m. July 3, another Sunday, the hospital passed state inspection, and the county lifted the order.

LAMC could not have weathered this disaster so well if our team had not been so well prepared.

For starters, we collaborated with our community. Our disaster plan involves multiple federal, state and local agencies. We created our plan with the feedback and involvement of these parties, which helped us to be seamless, prepared partners in protecting our community from the fire.

We practiced. Each year, we participate in a county-wide, multi-agency drill to rehearse our disaster plan, and LAMC conducts a second, live drill with hospital personnel. This experience was crucial when our fire crisis hit.

Our plan was updated. A disaster plan has to be honed based on experience, practice sessions and the lessons of others. Our reverse-911 evacuation and communication strategy, as well as our employee hotline, are based on our experiences with the Cerro Grande fire in 2000.

In the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire, we are tweaking our plan. During the crisis, we were threatened with an evacuation of our emergency headquarters, where the county’s only disaster response phone line was located, so we have added a mobile phone number to our plan. We also are reorganizing our phone tree for the county’s disaster team. As minor as these revisions seem, it is the subtle nuances that will keep us prepared.

We planned to stay connected. We established a team of hospital leaders who maintained constant communication with employees and medical staff. Our communications planning helped us keep everyone informed of what was happening on the ground and allowed us to mobilize teams quickly once the threat had diminished.

Los Alamos Medical Center escaped the blazes of Las Conchas and is now operating normally. I am eternally grateful to the fire battalion that worked for days on end to ensure our safety. I am also grateful for the LAMC employees and medical staff who worked with the authorities to see our community and hospital through this disaster. Together, we navigated the smoke and are better prepared for the future.

F. Curtis Smith is interim CEO of Los Alamos (N.M.) Medical Center.