This Week In Business Continuity: Not the Same Old Hurricane Stuff

Continuity Housing

“But it’s been so quiet for so long.”  “But they said this year isn’t going to be that active.”  “But this area hasn’t been hit in 15 years . . . “  But, but, but.  Hurricanes haven’t gone away and they’ll be back sooner than we’d prefer; the season starts in just seven weeks.  My hope is that this is the only time we’ll post about the Atlantic Tropical Storm Season this year and, fingers crossed, there won’t be any severe storms to post about later this year.

Clear skies on Monday, landfall on Thursday night. Click to enlarge. Clear skies on Monday, landfall on Thursday night. Click to enlarge.

But every year at this time I remember that the Houston-Galveston area has been caught by surprise in two different ways in the last few decades.  Once with hurricane Alicia in ’83 which formed up just south of Louisiana as a small thunderstorm but which made landfall near Galveston just three…

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US Hospitals Unprepared for Ebola

Ebola virus

A survey of nurses in the US reveals a stunning lack of preparedness in our hospitals to handle a major infectious disease outbreak. The survey conducted by National Nurses United (NNU) indicates our front-line health care safety net is not ready.   As reported in Infection Control Today, 85% of RN respondents stated that they had been given no information on Ebola by their hospitals. Could this have been the communication breakdown in Dallas that sent an infectious Ebola patient back into the public? They also report a lack of the basic personal protective gear required to handle Ebola patients.

The recommendations by NNU make sense. Treat this as an emergency.  Communicate and train.  Distribute supplies to those who need them.

One of the concerns in an outbreak like this is who will report for duty.  As has happened in other natural disasters and disease outbreaks, some health care workers choose self preservation over doing their noble work. Despite protective gear and other precautions, fear of something that cannot be seen like Ebola becomes overwhelming. Descriptions of the disease such as “a fire straight from the pit of Hell” do little to reassure.  Health care workers fail to report for work and walk away.  That leaves a reduced number of  true heroes to provide care for patients. The situation turns ugly.

But the impact of an outbreak such as Ebola reaches out in ever expanding circles.  Everyone involved in patient contact must be trained and provided protective gear.  That would include people who do housekeeping in the hospital.  They may be asked to do clean up in the Emergency Room.  Normal universal precautions for blood borne illnesses don’t seem adequate in the face of Ebola.

The City of Houston Emergency Medical Service has eghty-eight patient care vehicles. Less than half of those are staffed and equipped to provide Advanced Life Support (ALS).  As seen in Dallas, an ambulance unit transporting an Ebola patient was taken out of service for extensive decontamination.  It would not take many Ebola infected patients to remove a high percentage of Houston EMS vehicles from service for an indefinite period of time. Those Paramedics and EMT’s who staff those units might also be removed from the streets for monitoring.   All of the expected fires, car wrecks and health emergencies will still happen.  Will there be enough services available to respond?

Our health care system could be quickly overrun despite our advanced infectious disease control procedures. This version of Ebola moves fast. Can those in charge of our health care systems move faster?

Infection Today: First Line of Defense – Nurses Express Concerns Over State of Preparedness for Ebola.


Weather Watching

My dad read clouds. He had no training in meteorology, but he could tell me when it would rain or be nice. His heritage as a farm boy helped turn his eyes to the sky. He was not the biggest of the four kids, but he was still expected to work out in the fields. He even did his share behind the mule and plow. It was as important then as now to plan the day based on the weather.

When I was seven years old, dad read the clouds and could tell a tornado was brewing. He got home in time to make sure we were sheltered before the tornado hit. It was very close. All the doors in the house were banging open and shut as the air pressure changed around us.

Two years later on a fishing trip his eye to the sky mentality probably saved injury or death as we barely beat another storm to safe harbor. My dad loved to fish. Many weekends we would load up and drive about an hour northwest to our lake house. It was a simple building with a kitchen and bathroom on one side, a large screened in sleeping porch in the middle and French doors opening into a small bedroom on the other end. That spot on the lake was heaven for us kids. We had fantastic neighbors all around us. Our closest neighbors were a wonderful couple. Jack was head of a department at the college. His wife, Fran, was one of the sweetest people you would ever want to meet. They had a real lawn stretching all the way down to the lake and always had large hammocks hung between the trees. There were usually fresh baked cookies at their house. They even had air conditioning!

That fateful afternoon, dad and I loaded the sixteen foot aluminum boat with our bait and poles. He pulled the starter rope on the Evinrude outboard, and we cruised off toward the north end of the lake. There was a certain area with a lot of dead snags that was home to some big bass. Dad was a patient fisherman. He liked to fish with very large shiner minnows. He figured it would take a big fish to swallow a minnow that large. We would often fish all afternoon in that hot boat. And he could catch some monster bass.

About four o’clock dad pointed out some clouds on the horizon toward the southwest. He said to pull in my line because there was a storm coming, We needed to get off of the lake right away. I could see some dark clouds that seemed far away and not very threatening, but did as he asked.

The motor fired up, but the boat was not moving. The prop had sheared the pin. A shear pin is used on some boat propellers to protect the motor and drive gear should the propeller hit an obstacle. The pin shears before damage is done to the critical mechanical parts. Without a replacement on board we were dead in the water with a storm approaching.

He always had paddles in the boat, but it was a long way back to the boathouse. Luckily our dear neighbors were also out fishing in their boat about one hundred yards away. After a lot of yelling and waving back and forth, they finally understood that we wanted them to come to us. To say they were very leisurely in their approach would be an understatement. Several minutes later they putted over to our boat.

Dad tried to convey a sense of urgency pointing to the now very dark clouds moving rapidly our way. Jack and Fran (not their real names) were a very talkative couple. Dad was growing very impatient with them. They could not understand the imminent danger. Finally, he very bluntly stated he wanted them to tow us back immediately.

Jack started his little boat. We threw him our bow line, and a sense of relief set in. I could see how concerned my father was with this storm bearing down on us. At least we were on our way.

On our way might be a bit of an exaggeration too. Jack was not in any hurry. We moved at little more than idle speed as he laughed and joked pretty much to himself. My dad was not in a laughing mood. Dad kept telling him to speed up. At one point, Jack turned his boat around and was pulling us with his boat backwards. He was yelling “Chico! Chico!” and having a grand time. He was a professor in foreign languages.

Even I could see danger in the clouds now. A lightning show had commenced with rolling thunder accompaniment. The hot late afternoon sun was obscured with boiling green and black clouds.

Dad was at his limit. I had never heard him cuss anyone out like that before, but he sure did that afternoon. Jack got the message and throttled up his little outboard. It took another five minutes of towing at full throttle, which was not very fast for his boat, to get close to our dock. But it was too late.

I did not see it coming because I was focused the other direction, toward our dock and boathouse. The storm swept across the lake behind me with wind whipped waves and a curtain of rain.

We were about fifty feet from shore when the wind hit. It struck us broadside and blew us off the lake and ten feet onto dry land. I stepped out of the boat onto the ground and started running for the house dodging falling tree branches as huge ice cold rain drops pelted my head and back.

Dad stayed back to make sure Jack and Fran were going to be okay. It took them four tries, but they finally made it safely into their boathouse.

That storm made a huge impression on me. Did it teach the college professor neighbor? I know he and his wife had a big scare. I am an admitted weather junkie now. I want to know the how, why and when of the clouds.

I continue to be surprised at the number of people who live in isolation from their surroundings. The ear buds and iPhones might be connected, but we have lost that immediate connection with our environment. It is still important to keep an eye to the sky and an overall awareness of what is happening around us. What about that strange car parked in front of the house. Maybe we should drive by and take a look before we open the garage door. Maybe we should pay attention to long range forecasts, particularly those of us in coastal areas. And maybe we should look up from what we are doing occasionally to check the horizon.

A Lesson for All of Us

Flooded New Orleans

Flooded New OrleansHurricane Katrina proved to be an epic lesson in preparedness. From the individual level all the way to the highest levels of the federal government, failures to plan and mitigate ended in disaster. We are still learning lessons from that terrible storm in August of 2005. A recent book, Five Days at Memorial by Sherri Fink, is one of the more gut wrenching efforts to document what can happen when disaster strikes. Health care professionals at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center faced the ultimate nightmare scenario. They were left to decide those they could help and those they could not help. The last remaining back-up electrical generator had failed. Emergency batteries providing the last hope for life support equipment had nothing left to give. There is no question that everyone involved in those terrible hours were heroes in their attempts to provide for the patients. Building maintenance personnel performed extremely dangerous procedures attempting to keep power going in the building. Doctors and nurses did everything possible to save their sickest patients. But it was not enough.

The word “mitigation” is thrown around a lot. But it is an important word and concept. So many of the problems seen at Memorial Medical Center could have been mitigated either by building design or by more effective management practices. With the number of flooding disasters in recent years, those involved with building design and operation should understand the folly of placing critical infrastructure below grade. Back-up electrical generators will not run underwater. Oh, but it has never flooded at that location. All that can be said is that it has not flooded there yet. Mitigation moves that critical infrastructure above flood levels. It is important to remember that floods are not always related to a storm event.

A different maintenance routine and generators designed for long term use could have delayed some of the problems. Running a generator for a short time once a month is not enough as they found out. Weekly start-ups and then, longer 24 hour runs under load once a month might have revealed problems with the system before it was needed. That is what mitigation is all about. Finding problems and solving them before a procedure or piece of equipment is needed.

Five Days at Memorial is not a light read. In fact it can be painful. But it is full of lessons for all of us who plan for disasters. I am mentioning the book only from the standpoint of emergency preparedness. A lot of the book delves into the ethics of euthanasia and the medical personnel involved in a controversial way.

It’s that time again!


Box Clock

Daylight savings time is upon us.  Yes, it’s time to perform our semi-annual adjustment to watches and clocks.  Are you ready to scramble your body clock again?   It is no wonder that accident rates rise after our fall and spring time-change rituals.

But it is also time to maintain one of  the most important safety device in our homes, the smoke alarm.  Someone had the great idea a few years ago to link the time change with replacement of smoke alarm batteries.  It was a stroke of genius to link the fall time change in October with smoke detectors and Fire Prevention Month.smoke_detector_sm  But checking in the spring is important too.

So now we have an easy to remember time to check our smoke alarms. So what are we checking?  First check the location.  The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), recommends one smoke alarm on every floor, in every sleeping area, and in every bedroom.  That is a minimum number of locations for a single family dwelling.  An alarm should also be placed in the hallway outside bedrooms especially if the doors are closed while people are sleeping.  It should alarm before the sensor behind the closed door.  Early warning is critical.   Some locations are not recommended such as bathrooms and kitchens because the humidity or cooking fumes can cause false alarms.   Check the location instructions that come with your smoke alarm.  Another good source of information is the US Fire Administration web site, .

The simple test is to push and hold the test button.  The alarm should sound after one or two seconds. This should be done monthly.   If it works, then you know the battery, circuits and horn are functioning.  If it does not work, change the battery*.  If a new battery doesn’t solve the problem, it is time for a new unit. Replace detectors that are over 10 years old.  Can’t afford a new alarm? Many fire departments will provide them free of charge.  Check with your local fire station.  Some will even install it for you.

*Your smoke alarm may be wired into your home electrical system and not use batteries.  These hard wired alarms usually have a power indicator light that glows at all times.  An electrician or alarm technician will be required to troubleshoot issues with these alarms.  Battery powered units may or may not have an indicator light.  If present, it will blink every few seconds to show the battery is functioning.

Most smoke detector batteries will last 12 months.  Some of the new smoke detectors have batteries good for 10 years.  Changing them at 6 month intervals might be overkill.  Check the warning tags and information labels on your smoke detectors for the proper battery change interval and other maintenance.   It is critical to check your detectors at least twice a year.   Replacing batteries on a regular schedule will also prevent the dreaded middle of the night ‘chirp’ telling you that a smoke detector needs a new battery.

The only other maintenance required is gently vacuuming around the detector to remove dust and debris.  Dusty detectors trigger annoying false alarms.  Do not grab a can of compressed air to blow out the detector.  That can damage the sensors.

Today we have three types of smoke detectors from which to choose.  The long time standard,  Ionization type, remains the most inexpensive and most common. The newer Photoelectric is becoming more popular and less expensive.  Now you can buy combination detectors that provide both technologies.   Ionization alarms work best on fires that have open flame.   The Photoelectric type provides early warning of smoldering fires.  Smoldering fires can be very dangerous as they quietly fill a home with toxic smoke.  Smoldering fires claim many lives.  In most cases of residential fire deaths, it is smoke, not fire, that kills.  The combo alarms are more expensive, but do have the advantage of combining both technologies for early warning.  My recommendation is to have both types in the house.  However if budget is limiting, get the Photoelectric type.  Testing shows a distinct advantage with this type of alarm, alarming as much as 30 minutes before the ionization type alarm starts sounding.  Just make sure you have some kind of working alarm in your house.

If winter is still raging where you live, don’t forget to check those carbon monoxide detectors too!

Just a few minutes set aside this weekend can save a life.  That life might be yours or a loved one.  And don’t forget our senior citizens who may not have the ability to perform these simple checks without assistance.

Helpful links:

New Approaches to Vivarium Disaster Planning Help Preserve Valuable Research

Natural disasters

There is a tendency to focus only on natural disasters.

Why does contingency and continuity planning seem to be a back burner issue?  You may not live in an earthquake or storm threatened area, but disasters take many forms.  Your plans should take into account all potential hazards  natural and human caused. Natural disasters capture the headlines, but a break in colony health is a catastrophe too.  And what about that critical data?  Only by assessing risk, developing and then testing your plans can you have the ability to protect assets and then get back to work as soon as possible.   To paraphrase General Eisenhower, it’s not the plan but the planning that is the key.

I contributed to a recent article on disaster planning in Tradeline Reports