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Safely Out

August 27, 2007 By

Licensed-care facilities are mandated by state and federal law to write and maintain emergency plans. Most states, however, don't require any specific level of detail, and officials often fail to check whether such plans are workable.

As emergency management agencies in Colorado's north central region learned, many care facilities had what amounted to expanded fire drill policies masquerading as emergency plans.

"People expect first responders to just show up and take care of everything," said Tim Johnson, emergency management coordinator for the Douglas County Office of Emergency Management in Castle Rock, Colo. "But guess what? During an emergency, they're a little busy. So it's important that these facilities know how to take care of their people."

In Colorado, licensed facilities are required to have an emergency plan, but they're not required to go further than that, Johnson confirmed. "It doesn't say what's required to be in the plan," he said. "And what we've found is that while most have a plan to get their people out of the building, they don't know what to do with them afterward."

This fact was highlighted in a 2005 fire in Arapahoe County, just north of the Denver metropolitan area, in a small, eight-bed assisted living facility, Johnson said.

"They had a fire and got them out, but there was no plan on what to do with these folks," he said. "No plan for getting them relocated to another facility ... and these people had medical needs. And it became apparent that the facility had just not thought through the whole evacuation process."

Johnson said the experience prompted a number of cities and counties to band together and start a program to help special-needs facilities strengthen their emergency plans through education and outreach.


Overcoming Obstacles

The program began in 2006, and covers north central Colorado - a 10-county expanse with a population of about 1 million. It will target both traditional special-needs facilities, like nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as private schools and day-care centers, which have their own special needs during an emergency, officials say.

Emergency managers looking to start a similar program in their own area should first take stock of the facilities in their area they think will need assistance, said Deanne Criswell, emergency management coordinator for Aurora, Colo., a suburb of Denver, with a population of 310,000.

"We were surprised at how many we had," Criswell said. "Then we did outreach to each of them, looked at each of their plans and offered our help, because it's easier for us if they're prepared. The better prepared they are, the easier our job will be in a catastrophic event."

Criswell said the biggest obstacles each facility faced is where to take people post-disaster and how to get them there.

"It appeared to us when we first started approaching these places that they didn't have a good idea of how to do this or what it entailed," Criswell said. "Transportation is a big piece, but it's just the beginning piece. Where are you going to take them? Is it short-term shelter or long-term care? Do you have enough oxygen to make the trip? Do you have enough [staff] to go with you?"

Criswell encountered hopelessly outdated plans that harkened back to the Cold War and told facility managers to contact their civil defense office - a reference to the threat of being bombed by the Russians. Such an office, however, no longer exists.

"Many plans did not take into account homeland security or natural disasters," Criswell said, "so we've tried to make the plans an all-hazard type and not disaster-specific."

And Criswell's team ensures facility managers know Aurora has an Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and gives them

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