HIT Think

Why disaster recovery is never just a drill

Many years ago, I worked from a 30-story office building along Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. We were a short stroll away from the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower).

Every year, there would be an annual fire drill, no doubt needed to meet insurance and Chicago Fire Department requirements. We’d see the posted notices in the lobby and next to the elevator doors, announcing the time. Once in our offices, a manager would let us know what we were going to do.

Most times, the plan was to leave our offices on the 17th floor, locate the emergency stairs and walk down…to the 16th floor. There, we would huddle in the lobby, waiting for the all clear so we could trek back up the stairs to our offices and resume our workday. On a couple rare occasions, we had to actually LEAVE the building and stand in the patio that surrounded our building. These seemed to be timed around good weather and the availability of treats for successfully exiting the building.

I used to treat those drills cynically, and now, years later, I shudder to think how poorly prepared we really were. How casually we took the possibility of catastrophe. How unlikely that we would know what to do, and how calmly we would react if there was an actual fire or disaster to which we had to react. My guess is that we would curse our lack of attention to previous drills, and then act in a panic.

I can’t help but revisit those thoughts during catastrophic natural disasters, such as the nightmare being endured in coastal Texas and inland, in Houston in other areas. Lives hang in the balance, saved by the goodness and kindness of strangers helping strangers.

Hospitals and other healthcare organizations are facing challenges for which no mere fire drill could have prepared them. Already, reports are out that major hospitals in Houston are having to shut down, due to extensive flooding on access roads or other dangerous conditions.

Granted, there’s hardly any way to drill for a 1,000-year flood such the one inundating Texas. But that only underscores the importance of preparing for situations that could be unforeseen, as well as those that might happen.

That now extends down to the IT department, which operates the systems that now are the information lifeblood of any modern healthcare organization. That’s when all those backup routines, drills and enactments of real-life situations are truly worth it.

The irony is that if there’s any organization that doesn’t have time to play around with emergency drills, it’s a healthcare organization. Unfortunately, that’s precisely the reason why providers have to take drills deadly seriously—because any miscues are likely to result in regretful death and complications.

But the dire circumstances in southern Texas underscore the need to realize that a crisis of great magnitude can happen at any time, and the impact can be severe. We recently published a slide show we did on the 2011 destruction of Mercy Hospital in Joplin, and how that facility coped with recovery from a massive shock to its system. No one posted the information on that drill next to the elevator doors that morning. It rebounded to functioning based on previous planning, falling back to plans (and relying on creativity) and the heroic efforts of all staff members, IT and otherwise.

The events in Texas will not only tax that area of the country, but it will require the community of healthcare in the country to band together to help out. It’s something that the nation’s providers have always done, and done well. Former competitors are there when needed to bail out each other in times of crisis, and it’s what makes healthcare great.

The problems with drills for emergencies is they delete the urgency and set up the notion that, yeah, we’re doing this, but it will probably never happen. Whatever your organization does with disaster planning, if that’s the end result, well, that’s a recipe for, well, disaster.

Because in my office building in Chicago, I was let down at potentially the only time my life could have been in jeopardy. The date was September 11, 2001. I was mindlessly working away in my office that morning, maybe 300 feet from the Sears Tower. The assistant pastor of my church called, asking what I was doing. “Working at my desk,” I said hesitantly.

“Get OUT. GET OUT,” she screamed. “There’s a plane they can’t find, and they think it might be heading to crash into the Sears Tower. “GET OUT NOW!”

No one in the office building bothered to tell us to evacuate. I needed a call from out of state to alert me to danger.

False alarm? Yes. United Flight 93 had another target in mind, sadly, thankfully. Even so, I’ll never forget that moment. I hope no provider has a disaster, ever. But there’s no margin for error in being prepared, because in dealing with life and death, it’s truly inevitable.

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