EMERGENCY RESPONSE PLANS always get rewritten after a crisis. That’s certainly the case with Palm Beach Pathology, which survived the recent blitz of hurricanes that hammered Florida’s east coast.
“Our laboratory is located in West Palm Beach, a city hit hard by Hurricane Frances and Hurricane Jeanne,” said Gary Onofry, Administrator. “If we didn’t get it right when Frances came ashore the night of September 4, we certainly worked hard to get it right when Jeanne hit, just 21 days later!
“One big lesson is that power can be out for extended periods,” stated Onofry. “Our buildings survived with minor damage, but power was out for more than a week following Jeanne. Our administration building is on the hospital’s emergency power grid. We moved lab instruments to that location and continued to process specimens.
“By Hurricane Jeanne, we had found a temporary generator, but it provided only enough power for the instruments,” he said. “Without power for the air conditioning, there were plenty of ‘sweat shop’ jokes from the staff until the utility company restored power to our building.”
Onofry noted that Palm Beach Pathology, which has 16 pathologists and serves five hospitals, will upgrade its generator capability in the near future. “Our first choice was propane,” he said. “But we’ve learned that fire stations, telephone installations, and the cell phone system all use propane for their emergency power generation. In an emergency, propane supplies will be diverted to them on first priority. So we think a diesel-powered generator will best serve our needs.
“Our emergency plan also did not address when we should start and stop processing pathology specimens,” added Onofry. “Once a specimen goes on the processor, it can take up to four or five hours before it is ready for the next steps, which often must happen immediately. When a hurricane approaches, we learned that we needed policies and procedures to address when we would stop and restart specimen processing.”
Another interesting issue which surfaced was picking up specimens and storing them until processing could begin. “As a hurricane approaches, physicians want us to come by their offices and pick up the specimens,” he observed. “However, that is also a time of maximum chaos in the community with mandatory evacuations. So we need procedures to pick up these specimens and accurately track them through our system. Because the computer may be inoperable during this time, it means some type of tracking log must be instituted.
“Communication with pathologists and staff, and their ability to travel between home and the lab or hospital was also a challenge,” noted Onofry. “With downed power lines, curfews, and flooding, it is imperative to have someone who can assess damage to the lab ASAP without putting themselves in jeopardy. This should be part of every lab’s emergency response plan.”