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Lessons learned: Freeman & Mercy make changes in year since tornado

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When Saint Johns Hospital was hit by the May 22 tornado, emergency planning was tested and in some ways failed.

Both Freeman Hospital and now Mercy say they have learned many lessons from that fateful night, changes have been made and other changes are still coming that will help them handle any future disaster.

When St. John's was disabled by the twister triage was put to the test at Freeman Hospital.

"No one ever imagined 200 patients in 15 minutes," says Skip Harper, a Environmental Health and Safety Officer for Freeman.  "We're ready to be more prepared to respond, we have two 28 foot disaster trailers which we can use for anybody in the community, we can roll out both trailers - have 125 bed hospital units on them.  They can be in service in 15 minutes or an alternative treatment site."

Both hospitals are now storing evacuation equipment on every floor or unit.  Freeman added specialized evacuation chairs and med sleds used at Saint Johns that night to get patients down stairs.  Freeman is also stockpiling wheel chairs and supplies.

"One of the lessons we learned from Saint Johns - much of their equipment was stored at one location they couldn't access it that night," says Harper.

Four disaster closets have been set up at Freeman.  Each has radios, cots, and more to help with a surge of up to 40 patients.

Communications was an issue for both hospitals.  So Freeman added 100 radios and Mercy is looking into satellite communications.

After its generators were destroyed by debris on May 22, as it's building their new hospital Mercy is protecting its power sources, burying all utilities.

"Empire District Electric is going to do a great job of bringing electrical in from a couple different areas," says Mercy Hospital President Gary Pulsipher.  "In case one is damaged we'll still have electrical and if not then the generators will kick in."

Right now Mercy's back up generators are on campus in a metal building.  That won't be the same at the new hospital - lessons learned say it should have a safe room of its own.

"At the new hospital it's being built as a separate building about 500 yards away from the main structure and it's going to be a hardened structure, also cinder block to concrete and steel to withstand the effects of a tornado," says Dan O'Conner, the Project Manager for Mercy Planning, Design and Construction.

The new Mercy hospital is being buried into a hillside for more protection, but all walls will be storm hardened and, like its temporary hospital, there will be windowless areas of refuge like a hall and the cafeteria.

"Corridors were built and our entire evacuation plan was built so we could get people away from windows and so that doors would lock and be permanently locked so that they wouldn't fly open," says O'Connor.

During the aftermath of the tornado hospitals lost track of patients, so Freeman is going "old school" with a pre-numbered identification badge system.

"It works, it's simple," says Harper.  "We gave that presentation at several events and other hospitals are doing this - may be the way we want to go forward so other facilities are learning from what we've learned."

O'Connor says modern codes for earthquakes will also add safety to the new hospital, including tighter fittings that prevent fixtures in ceilings from falling.

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