A legacy of preparedness is a lesson for others

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Stan Szpytek
Stan Szpytek

It all started with an urgent phone call from the governor's office in the middle of the night in late August 2005. The state of Arizona was preparing to receive evacuees displaced from Hurricane Katrina, and someone needed to help coordinate the arrival and placement of dozens of long-term care residents. That someone was Kathleen Collins Pagels, then the executive director of the Arizona Health Care Association, which represents assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities.

The next day, senior services providers in the state immediately pitched in and prepared to process the arrival of elderly, sick and frail evacuees in a compassionate and professional manner. Without much advance notice or formal training in emergency management practices of this nature, Kathleen was able to expertly lead members of the healthcare association to one of their proudest moments by providing incoming evacuees with immediate care and comfort.

As things started to settle down, Kathleen quickly realized that assisted living communities, skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care providers in Arizona needed to be ready for disasters of all types, including those that could indirectly affect operations, such as a surge of evacuees from another state.

Over the course of the next several years, Kathleen diligently lobbied for a place at the table with the Arizona Department of Health Services, hospitals and other healthcare providers already involved with grant-funded disaster preparedness programs and emergency management initiatives. Finally, in 2012, the AzHCA became a grant recipient in partnership with ADHS, and a program was born. Branded as Disaster Ready, a comprehensive emergency preparedness program was developed to better prepare all skilled nursing facilities in Arizona for emergencies and disasters. The program focuses on skilled nursing, but lessons learned easily can apply to emergency preparedness for other entities on the care continuum.

To kick off the Disaster Ready program, Kathleen commissioned a statewide gap assessment to identity strengths, vulnerabilities and opportunities for improvement in the state's skilled nursing facilities in respect to emergency preparedness. Kathleen and the rest of the Disaster Ready team were proud when almost 90% of SNFs in Arizona participated in the initial assessment. Once the assessment process was complete, a strategic program aligned with grant deliverables was created to help promote success in improving levels of preparedness, response and recovery capabilities in facilities that provide services to one of the state's most vulnerable populations.

Appointed to the position of AzHCA's executive director in 2002, Kathleen spent much of the past 25 years in a professional capacity serving the aging network and previously worked as the director of public policy for Arizona chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. Since receiving Hospital Preparedness Program grant funding in 2012, helping to prepare long-term care providers in Arizona had been one of Kathleen's professional passions and top priorities.

As Disaster Ready evolved, additional programs and initiatives were developed to address the dynamic nature of emergency management in long-term care facilities. One of the first significant undertakings that Kathleen directed was getting skilled nursing providers to embrace and use a standardized method of command control to manage emergencies and disasters.

In 2012, the Disaster Ready program rolled out its first training workshops throughout the state. They were designed to teach providers the concepts and benefits of the Nursing Home Incident Command System along with other emergency management techniques. At about the same time, the first rendition of the Disaster Ready website was posted to give skilled nursing and other long-term care providers in Arizona a menu of comprehensive tools and resources to fortify their emergency preparedness programs.

To help keep the state's long-term care communities involved with emergency preparedness, Kathleen had the Disaster Ready team focus on several comprehensive program initiatives through the years, including:

  • Promotion and participation in regional healthcare coalitions
  • Presentation of an annual Disaster Ready workshop
  • Facility enrollment in the state's Health Alert Network
  • Development of a pilot bed-polling system
  • Creation of a Disaster Ready app
  • Continuous local and regional NHICS training programs
  • Facilitation of tabletop exercises
  • Guidance on emergency operations plan development
  • Armed intruder / active shooter training and workshops
  • Development of a long-term care continuity of operations plan template

One of Kathleen's most inspiring accomplishments was the development of an initiative that she called the Disaster Ready Champions program, which was a voluntary program. Providers could achieve the title of Disaster Ready Champion by meeting specific criteria based on many of the aforementioned items, which were designed to motivate individual providers to be better prepared. Once attaining this designation, a Disaster Ready Champion received a plaque that could be displayed at the facility.

Kathleen recently retired from her role as AzHCA executive director. As she prepared for her departure, she provided the Disaster Ready team with her vision of program goals and objectives beyond her tenure. She has a strong desire to help better connect the behavioral health sector of long-term care to the emergency management community. Considering the acuity and complexities that evacuation or sheltering-in-place has on this type of special population, she believes that it will be essential to better engage this important sector of healthcare to help promote optimum levels of preparedness.

Having the privilege of working with the association as its life safety and disaster planning consultant for the past nine years, one is clear to me: Kathleen Collins Pagels and her fierce advocacy for the safety and well-being of residents of nursing homes and other types of senior living properties makes her Arizona's true Disaster Ready Champion. The legacy that she leaves behind is one of truly improving the quality of life and levels of emergency preparedness in residential and long-term care facilities and serves as an excellent example of how other states could enhance their levels of preparedness through dedication, collaboration and partnership.

Stan Szpytek is the president of consulting firm Fire and Life Safety in Mesa, AZ, and is the life safety / disaster planning consultant for the Arizona Health Care Association and California Association of Health Facilities. He is a former deputy fire chief and fire marshal and has more than 40 years of experience in life safety compliance and emergency preparedness. He recently shared fire safety tips with McKnight's Senior Living. E-mail Szpytek at Firemarshal10@aol.com.

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