A typical visit to the emergency room can take hours, so what happens during a widespread emergency — if there’s a multi-car pileup on Interstate 25; if there’s a pandemic flu outbreak; if there’s a chemical spill in Colorado Springs?
Emergency departments are trained and prepared for the worst disasters, said Bill Mayfield, emergency management coordinator for Memorial Health System.
Mayfield knows — he’s responsible for training regional health care workers and first responders to handle a disaster, particularly one that involves hazardous materials. And he’ll coordinate all regional hospitals’ response to an emergency, a role for which he’s “loaned” out from Memorial.
Mayfield has been in the disaster management business for 11 years.
“Most really large-scale events are not intentional,” he said. “They are naturally occurring. Around here, it would be snowstorms, accidents, high industrial accidents such as a chemical spill, something like that,” he said. “And hospitals are required to maintain JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation for Health Care Organizations) standards to respond to those kinds of events.”
Both Penrose-St. Francis Health Services and Memorial are part of a national coalition of emergency responders.
“It’s called the National Disaster Medical System, and Penrose has agreed that we’ll accept patients if needed,” said Jim Mullis, safety officer. “And it works both ways — if something major happens here, we have the capability to send patients out, all while keeping track of them.”
Both hospitals say they are prepared for “likely occurrences,” such as mass casualty accidents or automobile accidents. Mullis said Penrose is working to become better prepared for other large-scale disasters.
“The big scare right now is pandemic flu, of course,” he said. “And we’re working with the health department and other emergency responders to be able to respond.”
Penrose received a state grant to buy equipment to help respond to major chemical events. Both hospitals have decontamination equipment in case people need to have chemicals removed from their skin or clothing.
It’s a responsibility that Mayfield takes seriously, since he also trains firefighters and emergency responders. Memorial has an entire bay dedicated to emergency response — including military-standard portable showers that can be set up at the location of the incident.
“We look at all potential hazards,” he said. “And we adjust training compared to the likelihood of their occurrence. For instance, we do some hurricane training, because although we won’t be directly affected, we do send medical people to hurricane areas. But it’s not a major focus. We do a lot of mass casualty training because there is a high likelihood of some major event.”
Memorial and Penrose also can bring additional medical personnel to the hospitals.
Events are staged in “levels,” Mayfield said. Memorial, for instance, has agreed to handle up to a Level 2 without outside resources. At a Level 3, or 138 additional patients, the hospital will bring in outside resources. A Level 5 will bring 270 additional patients to the hospital. At that point, he said, the hospital could choose to send some patients to other states for treatment.
“We’re prepared for a surge capacity,” Mayfield said, noting that all the hospitals along the Front Range have signed on to the plan. “At a Level 3, we have arrangements with the El Paso County Medical Society and other organizations to bring in physicians who might not normally work with Memorial, on a volunteer basis.”
Memorial and Penrose officials believe they can meet any emergency.
“It’s important to know they all won’t be coming at once,” Mayfield said. “So we’ll have time to gear up when they arrive. There could be a delay — but it won’t be a long one.”
Technology allows quick response to hospital overcrowding, he said. Area hospitals are part of a regional Web site that tracks how many emergency room beds are being used at any given time. And when a hospital needs to divert patients, it uses the Internet to notify other hospitals.
“There was a fire in Denver and this Web site alerted us that the Denver hospitals might need some beds,” Mayfield said. “It really cuts down on delays.”
One of the problems during an “epidemiological” emergency — something like pandemic flu — is isolation capability. Both hospitals have the capability to isolate patients. And that’s a role the El Paso County Health Department also takes part in.
“We’ve been working with the community on a grant from the state health department to respond to hazards appropriately,” said Candy Bukland, deputy of public health administration. “We’re working with the hospitals, city and county offices and other people to make sure we have the things in place to protect the public health.”
The Health Department also takes a regional role, funding three positions that will respond to emergencies in Teller, Park, Lake and Chafee counties.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, all three organizations have increased their focus on bioterrorism. Memorial has purchased equipment to respond to terrorist events — but Mayfield won’t say what the equipment is or where it is located.
“We can’t let people know too much,” he said. “But we’re prepared if something happens here.”
The organizations also participate in the Metro Medical Response Committee, a homeland security group that focuses on disaster planning. More than 100 people attended a recent event, where an Israeli doctor gave advice about dealing with major disasters.
“Israel is the best nation out there to deal with terrorists and other events,” Mayfield said. “This surgeon came in from Hadira to show us how we can do it better.”