Dodged the storm but not the crisis

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Health care facilities that were not in the direct path of hurricanes Katrina and Rita still felt their ferocious impact. At the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., the storms that pounded the Gulf Coast led to a spike in disaster drills and a surge of data requests from state and local health officials.

"We are a member of the National Disaster Medical System, so when there is potential for a hurricane, we get an e-mail a few days out asking us to identify how many beds we have available," said Kathryn Blannett, Halifax's manager of disaster preparedness, safety and security. "It's something we are able to do over the Internet, but we must provide information on how many critical-care beds and how many pediatric beds we have open and staffed."

The Homeland Security Department operates NDMS, which was put in place years ago to ensure a cooperative health care response among communities during natural disasters or other events, such as acts of terrorism. Although situated on the Atlantic Ocean -- out of Katrina's path -- Halifax officials were required to prepare daily NDMS reports during the deadly storm. State health department officials and the Florida Hospital Association asked for the same information.

"Though some of these reports require a little more detail and involve a few more questions, they are all looking for capacity," Blannett added.

Along with meeting federal and state requests for data on the hospital's availability, Halifax information technology officials also fed information to emergency medical services (EMS) workers. The facility and nearby communities make use of EMSystems, a Web-based tool for communicating the status of regional emergency rooms to help ambulance and other EMS workers make critical emergency transport decisions.

This year's hurricanes -- along with the storms that brushed Daytona last year -- have spurred officials to enhance the use and capabilities of those reporting systems. "During Katrina and other hurricanes, we have run drills and put a lot of information into EMSystems and have now created a pretty robust system we can use during disasters," Blannett said.

The massive storms that wreaked havoc west of Halifax and the medical center's close calls last year have helped shore up response efforts.

"These have proved to be opportunities to define and enhance procedures," said Lori Delone, Halifax County's chief technology officer. Downtime drills are more routine now, with Delone and her staff pulling Halifax systems off-line during busy times at the hospital. "We must prepare the psyche of the staff and force them to identify exactly what they will do should systems go down," she said.

-- Jennifer Jones

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