HAP Blog

Is Your Hospital Ready for a Blizzard?

Your winter preparations should start before the leaves change

October 16, 2023

As difficult as it to write this, the reality is almost upon us. It’s time to replace our flip flops and t-shirts with snow boots and knit caps. The seasonal change will likely unfold as it does every year—the trees will lose their leaves, the temperatures will dip, and the cold rain and snow will arrive upon us.

We hope winter will be mild and routine, but we all know that “hope” isn’t the best plan in emergency management. That’s why now is a good time to prepare our staff and facilities for the worst mother nature can throw at us.

Last winter, a massive blizzard forced Buffalo General Medical Center to shelter in place for over 55 hours. Staff couldn’t leave the facility and relief couldn’t arrive, which meant many had to work hours on end. Historic winter storms are not limited to the Great Lakes region, and facilities should not diminish or disregard the possibility of being impacted.

Just over 25 years ago, The Blizzard of ’96 hammered many states on the East Coast. From Rhode Island, down to Virgina, and over to Cincinnati, massive amounts of snow halted traffic and brought daily life to a standstill. Many cities and emergency services were paralyzed. The snow totals throughout the region were staggering. Philadelphia saw 30 inches of snow. Pennsylvania’s state capital was blanketed with 22 inches. This storm was not a one-off. The record of historical events shows vulnerabilities across many states, and facilities up and down much of the East Coast need to consider the potential for storms and prepare for impacts.

Here are important considerations for your team if you need to shelter in place during a storm:

  • Establish a wellness officer or a team of individuals who focus on the wellbeing of staff during stressful and shelter-in-place events.
  • Identify actionable items and tasks that can be operationalized during events. This includes providing comfort and/or healthy choice foods and snacks, spaces-of-escape that provide quiet and calm environments, entertainment rooms for relaxation, and fitness areas and equipment that help relieve stress.
  • Prepare staff to arrive to the facility/shift with their hygiene needs, medications, hearing aids, glasses and contact lenses, charging devices, change of clothes, and any comfort items needed over the course of multiple days.
  • Prior to the storm, notify the media that your facility has taken all necessary preparedness precautions for sheltering in place while providing uninterrupted care. This shows your readiness; presents your facility in a positive light; lessens anxieties with staff, patients, and family members; and proactively addresses any public-facing concerns that may surface during the event.

Additional facility and infrastructure considerations you should have on your radar ahead of the storm:

  • Dry and light snow easily drifts and can cause whiteout conditions. Accumulating snow against doors and entranceways can cause automatic doors to jam open or closed.
  • Wet snow is heavy and harder to move. It can cause lightweight entrance-overhangs and awnings to collapse.
  • Ice can bring down electrical lines—trim limbs near and above power lines.
  • Power failures cause a host of concerns related to the loss of heat, freezing pipes, and fire suppression systems (watch for ruptures).
  • Salt or stone icy walkways.
  • Meet with community and city officials who oversee road maintenance and advocate for the maintenance of roads around your hospital’s campus. One abandoned vehicle can obstruct critical access points for staff and patients or halt the delivery of essential supplies.
  • Snow removal tends to result in narrowing roadways, driveways, and limited parking availability.
  • Water can get under roofing materials, freeze and—days later, when thawing occurs—seep into ceilings and walls.

If you want to know about getting ready for winter storms, contact me or HAP’s emergency management team.

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