Four Hospital Disaster Prep Angles to Consider in Light of Icelandic Volcano

Scott Wallask, April 20, 2010

The world offers many opportunities for hospital emergency managers to think analytically, and there is plenty of inspiration to be taken from the eruption of the volcano in Iceland.

Ash spewing high into the atmosphere from the volcano has disrupted air traffic across Europe since last Thursday. Aviation officials expect that many airlines will be able to resume flights out of European airports as the ash cloud subsides today.

For ground-based disaster preparation coordinators in healthcare facilities, think about the following issues that the volcanic activity has brought forth:

  • Creatively planning for escalating incidents. When the Iceland volcano erupted, it's doubtful anyone initially predicted that it would halt most European-based flights. But the eruptions combined with atmospheric conditions and political decision-making, all of which escalated the incident beyond its early stages. Many hospital-related disasters, the most notable being Hurricane Katrina in 2005, follow similar patterns of evolving scenarios. The Joint Commission's emergency management standards require hospitals that offer emergency services to conduct at least one disaster exercise a year that includes some sort of escalating scenario.
  • Preparing to last at least 96 hours without outside help. The Joint Commission expects emergency operations plans to identify hospital capabilities if the organization can't be supported by the local community for at least 96 hours (note that this doesn't mean the hospital has to survive for 96 hours, but rather determine its ability to do so and then plan accordingly). Although the ash cloud didn't shut down cities and governments, it did demonstrate how a disaster can unexpectedly become drawn out. Another industry, in this case air carriers, had to deal with days' worth of disruptions to their business, and hospitals may be able to learn from the airline reactions.
  • Getting staff members to your hospital during an emergency. Think of the thousands of passengers who were stranded with little warning at various airports because of the flight delays. Some countries have begun efforts to retrieve their citizens through means other than planes—for example, the British Royal Navy was being considered to transport stranded travels on war ships. Hospitals must also plan for taking unusual steps if an emergency isolates employees at home who need to be at the facility.
  • Losing money during a disaster. Airline carriers have lost up to $200 million a day during the prolonged crisis, says the International Air Transport Association. Such figures drive home the point that large-scale emergencies can devastate business operations. Hospital emergency planners who haven't already done so should take the Iceland situation as an invitation to coordinate disaster recovery planning with the finance and accounting departments, as well as insurance carriers.
Scott Wallask Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for the Hospital Safety Center. He can be reached at
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