From the devastation of 2017’s major hurricanes to the mass evacuations following fires of the Midwest, disasters disrupt continuity of care among people living with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD). While the event may last mere hours, the effects stretch for weeks, if not months, afterward. In care settings, the ability for direct care professionals, behavioral therapists and other health professionals to provide proper care depends on effective disaster preparedness.

 

What Is Disaster Preparedness, and Why Is It Essential for Caregivers of Those With IDD?

People living with IDD have a right to the same standard and continuity of care as other members of society. Those with IDD should know how to respond to a disaster or emergency situations, and this goes back to training and preparation by caregivers and staff members. In fact, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requires all Medicare and Medicaid participating providers adhere to a new emergency preparedness rule, effective November 15, 2017.

The new rule sets forth stringent regulations and guidance for the creation of an emergency preparedness plan, policies and procedures, communications plan and testing requirements for effective disaster and emergency preparedness. Although healthcare facilities should already be well in the process of planning for disasters, the recent tragedies and disasters serve as a stark reminder to the need for better planning.

What About Employers of Individuals With IDD?

The responsibility to maintain and ensure adequate planning does not end in the care setting. It includes employers of individuals with IDD or physical disabilities too, reports the U.S. Department of Labor. Employers should consider the needs of all employees when creating a disaster and emergency preparedness plan, including meeting special needs of those with IDD, like offering counseling or activities to help prevent panic and upset during a disaster.

 

How to Prepare for the Next Disaster.

The immediate aftermath of a disaster is severe, but even greater dangers may lurk around the corner. As explained by CNBC, the floodwaters of hurricane Harvey created a toxic stew of E. coli, MRSA and other deadly pathogens. Now, these pathogens threaten the safety of the region’s drinking water, including groundwater resources.

In Puerto Rico, infrastructure problems and a lack of resources continue to undermine disaster response and recovery efforts by everyone affected, including people living with IDD. For health organizations and care providers, the only way to prevent a catastrophe from worsening into a life-taking epidemic lies in proper, robust disaster preparedness and planning. Unfortunately, the requirements within the new CMS rule are pages long, but your organization can take these simple steps to create an effective plan.

1. Communicate Well With Team Members, Persons-Served and Other Individuals.

Disaster preparedness begins with effective communication. Ask your team members about their concerns for disaster preparedness, and keep an open mind, reports Healthcare Dive. Communicate with those served, and ask for feedback from the family members and friends of those served as well. Your organization needs to understand the fears and needs of your community first to create a proper disaster preparedness plan.

2. Evaluate Your Existing Disaster Preparedness Plans.

Regardless of when your disaster preparedness plan was last updated, the recent disasters mean your organization should re-evaluate your plans. Review the plan for effectiveness, and consider the risks and impacts from disasters that have not hit your area in recent years.

Can your organization survive a catastrophic storm and flood, or does your organization have the resources and skills necessary to provide care during weeks-long periods without electricity? While these scenarios are bleak, they are reality for many areas hit by this year’s major hurricanes and disasters.

3. Reduce Opportunity for Lost Records Through EHR Implementation.

Lost medical records and health information are among the top causes of poor, sub-standard care when a disaster occurs. This problem worsens when organizations rely on physical means of documenting and charting information for persons-served. However, your organization can successfully mitigate this risk by implementing electronic health records (EHR). The key to ensuring continuity of care also requires the use of a cloud-based system or EHR platform to ensure damage to a single facility does not result in the loss of records.

4. Consider the Added Burden of Expanding Care Services to Those in Your Community.

Depending on the damage sustained by your facility, your organization may be expected to expand care services to those impacted in your community. This could include serving as a temporary shelter site or providing care to those with IDD in need of life’s necessities. As a result, the standard supplies and preparations for emergency preparedness should go beyond the minimum requirements for those in your facility.

5. Distribute Information, Train for and Practice Disaster Preparedness Exercises.

After your organization creates an updated version of its disaster preparedness plan, distribute the information to all team members, persons-served and their family members or friends. This will help prevent confusion and disarray should a disaster occur.

Train your team members on disaster preparedness plans, and conduct exercise drills to improve team members’ responsiveness during an actual disaster.

For example, team members should conduct evacuation drills with persons-served. Such drills should also vary depending on the type of disaster. In other words, the evacuation drill for imminent danger due to tornado or severe weather may differ from the evacuation plan for a fire or hurricane.

6. Stay Informed of Local and Regional Disaster Threats.

The best-laid plans for disaster preparedness lack value if the plan is not activated when disaster strikes. Your team members should continue vigilance over potential disasters, such as a hurricane or fire, by staying in touch with local authorities and news agencies.

Although staff members may have FM radio-enabled smart phones and access to various media devices, each facility should have at least one emergency-alert weather radio available to notify staff and persons-served of evacuation or shelter-in-place directions, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Also, your team members should know where the device is located, as well as other emergency supplies, including flashlights, batteries, emergency medications and other necessary items.

7. Contact the Appropriate State Authority for Your Organization When Disaster Strikes.

Regardless of the size and scope of your organization, an emergency, such as a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster, may result in major disruption to those you serve and your team members. As a result, it may be necessary to request resources and assistance from the appropriate overseeing agency in your state. In addition, your organization should contact your appropriate governing agency as soon as a disaster occurs.

For example, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services advises health organizations and care facilities for those with intellectual disability or other related conditions to contact the nearest office of the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS). This helps to prevent the relocation of evacuees and others affected by the event to an adversely affected facility.

 

Disaster Preparedness Begins and Ends With Planning and Will Help Maintain Quality and Continuity of Care.

People have an astounding capacity for growth and unity when disaster strikes. Hurricane season lasts through November 30, and this year’s winter could bring some of the coldest temperatures on record. Next year, severe storms are sure to return, but your organization has an opportunity to plan for the inevitable and help protect the lives of your team members and those you serve. Start planning now. Re-evaluate your plants after every major disaster. Train. Repeat the entire process.

Never stop improving on your disaster preparedness plan. Your organization can ensure continuity of care and help prevent the loss of life through disaster preparedness.

Relias provides courses for DSPs on risk mitigation and crisis interventions for individuals with IDD. Learn more.