Emergencies come in many forms: From devastating hurricanes to global pandemics, disasters disrupt continuity of care among those living with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). While some events may last mere hours, the effects of such emergencies can stretch for weeks or months. As we saw during the coronavirus pandemic, some emergencies require a long-term plan of action. In IDD settings, the ability of direct support professionals, behavioral therapists, and other health professionals to provide proper care in the midst of a disaster depends on effective emergency preparedness.
Emergency preparedness for IDD caregivers
Individuals with IDD have the right to the same standard and continuity of care as any other member of society. Those with IDD should be provided the tools and resources to know how to respond to any number of emergency or disaster scenarios. This means that effectively training direct support professionals on these tools and resources is essential.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) now requires all Medicaid and Medicare participating providers to review and update their emergency preparedness plans at least every two years (and annually for long-term care facilities). These rules also set forth stringent regulations and guidance for creating these plans, requirements for a communications plan for persons served, family members and community stakeholders, as well as testing and training on the emergency preparedness plan.
Considering employees with IDD
The responsibility to maintain adequate emergency planning does not end in the care setting. Employers are also required to ensure accessible emergency planning for their employees with IDD. The U.S. Department of Labor provides guidance on meeting the needs of all employees in their emergency preparedness plans, including meeting the needs of their employees with IDD.
Some of these activities could include post-disaster counseling or training activities that help prevent panic and upset during a disaster. Direct supports who provide supportive employment services can help ensure that employees with IDD are included in their workplace emergency preparedness plans and are provided accessible training on these plans.
Preparing for the next emergency
The immediate aftermath of an emergency can be severe, but depending on the type of disaster, other dangers can appear and wreak havoc for a community. For example, floodwaters of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey created a toxic combination of E. coli and other deadly pathogens, as CNBC reported, which threatened the region’s drinking water. Preparing your organization to respond to threats like these is the best way to mitigate risk to the continuity of care for the individuals you serve.
The following recommendations can help your organization prepare for the next emergency:
1. Communicate effectively with all stakeholders
Emergency preparedness begins with effective communication. Ask your team members about their concerns regarding proper preparation. Communicate with the individuals you serve and ask for feedback from them, their family members, and their friends. Planners in your organization should seek deep understanding of the fears and needs of your community to craft a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan.
2. Evaluate your existing emergency preparedness plan for IDD clients
Regardless of when you last updated your organization’s emergency preparedness plan, the current threat of COVID-19 means your organization should reevaluate its guidance. Review the plan’s effectiveness in light of the recent pandemic and consider any future risks or impacts that the pandemic may have for your organization.
Of course, other emergencies can still occur. It is critical to consider other types of risks, such as fires or natural disasters. Can your organization survive a catastrophic storm? Does your organization have the necessary resources and skills to provide care for weeks without electricity? While these scenarios can feel bleak, they have been a reality for many service providers in recent years.
3. Reduce the opportunity for lost records through an EHR system
If your organization has not already, consider implementing an electronic health record (EHR) system. Lost medical records and health information are among the top causes of substandard care when an emergency occurs. This problem worsens when an organization relies on paper documentation or other physical means of charting information for persons served. Ensuring proper continuity of care in the aftermath of a disaster is much easier to manage if you have a cloud-based system or EHR platform in place.
4. Consider the burden of expanding care services in your community
Depending on the type of emergency, your organization may be expected to expand care services to those impacted by the same emergency 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 number of supplies and preparations for an emergency can go beyond the minimum requirements for those in your facility.
Consider the impact that an emergency can have on your community, and work with community stakeholders to determine how your organization can and should respond in these scenarios.
5. Distribute information, provide training, and practice emergency preparedness drills with IDD clients
After you have updated your organization’s emergency preparedness plan, be sure to share this information with all team members, persons served, and their family members. This can help prevent confusion and ensure appropriate responses to the disaster.
Regular training on the emergency preparedness plan should occur for all team members, and conducting regular drills to improve the team’s responsiveness during an emergency is a critical training tool as well. This training should also involve persons served, as different emergencies will require different responses. For example, sheltering in place for a tornado will look and feel much different from sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the two scenarios will require different ways of preparing.
6. Stay informed about local and regional disaster threats
The best emergency preparedness plan will lack value if the plan is not activated when disaster strikes. Your team members should continue to practice vigilance by staying in touch with local authorities and news agencies and responding to an emergency in a timely fashion.
Regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic, IDD organizations have had to quickly pivot their emergency preparedness plans to address shortages of protective personal equipment, organize supplies for extended stay-at-home orders, and determine how to respond if an employee or person served is infected. Staying in touch with state and local recommendations to address these threats is critical to keeping the people you serve safe.
7. Contact the appropriate local authority when disaster strikes
Regardless of the size or scope of your organization, any emergency may result in major disruption to those you serve and your employees. As a result, it may be necessary to request resources and assistance from the appropriate overseeing agency in your state. In any emergency, your organization should contact the appropriate governing agency as soon as a disaster occurs.
Maintaining quality and continuity of care
People have an amazing capacity for resilience and growth when a disaster occurs. However, the best outcomes begin and end with advance planning and appropriate response to these emergencies.
Start planning for future emergencies now. Reevaluate your plans at set intervals and any time an emergency occurs. Train your staff regularly. Repeat the entire process.
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