Huntsville Hospital preps for big disasters, mass shootings with extensive training

Published: Aug. 6, 2019 at 6:29 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - No one ever expects it to happen in their community, until it does. This week, there were two mass shootings in two separate states in just 13 hours.

That has many people wondering how prepared is north Alabama for a mass casualty event or disaster?

Huntsville Hospital is the region’s only Level I Trauma Center, so they get the most seriously injured patients and the staff works hard to make sure they’re ready for anything.

The hospital’s Emergency Department is one of the busiest in Alabama, with a designated trauma team.

Joyce Thomas is the manager of emergency preparedness and she works nonstop to make sure an efficient and effective plan is in place.

She says if there’s an active shooter situation or any kind of disaster in the region, the staff is trained and prepared to handle the influx of patients.

“We take this very seriously. We practice and we train here at our facility to be prepared,” Thomas explained. “Does the system work? Do we have the position in the right place? Is the staff positioned in the right place? We want to iron out any little glitch that might could cause us a problem down the road.”

She looks at other major events to make sure the hospital can manage a similar number of patients. For example, when the mass shooting happened in Las Vegas, more than 250 people went to the local emergency department.

“We want to be able to manage that too. If that’s the number, then we’re planning 250 for two o’clock in the morning,” Thomas said.

The hospital does constant training, including community drills with the city, the school system and the airport.

They also do a lot of internal drills. For example, at their Madison Emergency Department, the staff recently practiced on how to triage patients to make sure their plan works.

The performance from the drills is evaluated and hospital officials address any changes that need to be made and also initiate more training in certain areas if needed.

During big events, patients will be brought to the nearest trauma facility and once capacity is maxed out, some will go to Erlanger and UAB. Others will go to sister facilities within the Huntsville Hospital system for treatment of their injuries.

Thomas says after the April 27 tornadoes in 2011, Huntsville Hospital restructured their emergency plan.

“We learned a lot from that event. We changed our whole plan. It changed everything,” she added.

The staff now uses two-way radios and practices with them regularly to know how to use them.

“So if the power goes out, the phone lines go out, and we get hit by a tornado, we still have the backup radios,” Thomas said.

If there's an active shooter inside the hospital, there's a plan for that as well. The hospital changed their emergency codes this year. They used to have code names for an active shooter. Now, they're using plain language.

“Our visitors don't know what a Code Silver is, but if they hear there's an active shooter, they know to shelter in place, and they know what that means. It's really to protect our patients, our visitors and our staff,” Thomas explained. “We have a disaster plan and each department has an addendum to that. And they've already predetermined their safe zones. All the nurses on the floor know if an active shooter is called in the hospital, we know where to safely hide. Each unit knows that.”

She showed WAFF’s crews the carts that are set up at each entry site at the Emergency Department.

Patients get arm bands at the front door and they'll go to that designated color pod for treatment based on their level of injuries.

And the hospital’s training extends beyond mass casualties and severe weather events. They also prepare for outbreaks, highly infectious diseases and radiation exposure.

“We can’t sit back and say it won’t ever happen to us. That’s not the way to be. We want to be proactive and we want to be there. We don’t want to let our community down,” Thomas stressed.

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