After California wildfires of 2017, one senior living operator has settled a lawsuit and is fighting the potential loss of facility licensing based on its handling of resident evacuations. Similarly, in August 2017 after Hurricane Harvey, one report — with findings deemed “misleading and unfair” by industry groups — alleged that assisted living communities had shortcomings in their emergency preparedness and evacuations.

I share these two examples, of the many that exist, not to highlight any one operator but to show the need for better disaster preparedness among all of our senior living communities. After all, one standard on which C-suite executives and community executive directors can agree is that assisted living communities are as responsible for the lives of their residents during a disaster as they are during day-to-day living.

You may consider including, as we do at AEC Living, employees and their families in disaster preparedness plans as well. Our facilities are meant to serve as a safe spot for all to gather, so having a well-thought-out plan of action during an earthquake, fire or any natural disaster could be the difference between life and death. Additionally, if you have a plan, it is important to ensure that it is sound and that all members of your facility are clear about expectations.

Below are six best practices senior living communities should consider when preparing for emergencies:

1. Instill firm emergency policies and plans

During an emergency, you must have a plan and policies in place that account for a wide variety of disasters and emergencies. Some of the policies are obvious; others, less so.

Our staff members are caregivers. To alleviate their impulse to go to their families, AEC Living’s policy allows residents and staff members to bring in their families and crated pets.  This policy helps encourage staff members to remain in our facilities and on-site to assist residents during an emergency.

Our plan also communicates roles and responsibilities during a crisis.

One of the first things our new employees learn are the emergency policies and expectations of the duties they must perform. These policies outline what everyone’s specific roles should be during an emergency situation.

For example, we have a designated “point person” for each location during an emergency. The person is assigned a facility based on his or her proximity to home. Each point person knows the evacuation plan and the proper procedures during for each particular emergency, whether it is a natural disaster, power outage or a shelter-in-place situation.

Communicating with both staff and residents about who the emergency point person is makes an evacuation, if necessary, run more smoothly; therefore, we have assigned one team leader in each facility to lead all communications. Staff and residents know the evacuation routes ahead of time, and everyone is clear about what is expected of him or her.

We also have an emergency response system that notifies each resident with a text, phone call and email in real time, which allows residents to properly react.

What if the disaster extends for an entire day or even longer? The plan needs to be flexible enough to accommodate various situations.

There’s a difference in planning for a one-day emergency versus a disaster that may last for weeks. We always advise to prepare for the long term.

Some of the considerations mean that each facility must have back up food and water to last for several days. It’s crucial to store enough to feed staff members, their families and their pets. We also insist that our residents store enough of the medications they require.

We also suggest having a plan to handle looters. As we saw in several of the crises in the past several years, looters can be an issue.

It is important to communicate with the police department in preparation for an emergency by coordinating a disaster plan. Doing so will help the department connect with you easier and faster. Protecting our residents and their valuables is our main goal.

2. Use practice drills to put your plans to the test.

Practice makes perfect. A plan is effective only when staff members and residents practice and rehearse the necessary steps. We teach everyone, including residents and their family members, what to do in an emergency or a disaster.

Throughout the year, we run fire and earthquake drills and practice for one of our biggest disaster priorities: a dirty bomb. Although it’s never pleasant to practice for these scenarios, it must be done.

At all three of our facilities, we practice sheltering in place, taping windows, gathering people in one spot and assigning staff members to check on residents. Additionally, we run some drills at night, when residents are most likely to be in their rooms.

Although they may be inconvenient, practicing these drills with staff members and residents can save lives in an actual disaster. All senior living disaster plans should outline a schedule of when to expect training and practice drills, and operators should ensure that each location carries out the scheduled sessions.

3. Know your first responders and emergency personnel.

Part of a thorough plan includes coordinating an arrangement with the local hospitals as well with local emergency responders, such as the police and fire departments. Our neighborhood emergency personnel are no strangers. They have met our staff members and residents and know our facilities.

Fire alarms and sprinklers in each of our buildings have been tied into the local fire department. Every year, we train and recertify our staff members on how to use important tools such as the fire extinguisher, generator and any other life-saving tools that can make a difference.

4. Test your emergency equipment regularly.

Having emergency equipment during a disaster is helpful only if the equipment works.

Test your emergency equipment ― both big and small — frequently. We frequently test the generators we have generators in our buildings. The lives of some of our residents could depend on it. The small things, such as radios and flashlights matter, too, however.

Have up-to-date emergency kits — clean water, backup water and nonperishable backup food. Keep extra supplies and two weeks’ worth of food for each person ― and you’ll want to plan for some extra people, as some families show up. Watch expiration dates and restock food and water as necessary to make sure it is as fresh as possible.

As I mentioned, we have an emergency response system to notify families with messages in real time during an emergency situation, and we regularly make sure this system is operational. No one wants to get a notice an hour after an incident happens.

5. Test your emergency equipment regularly.

Training is as important as practice. Every staff member, resident, family member and those who are important to the facility should know their roles in the disaster plan. People need to know what is expected of them, so in case of a disaster, there are no questions. We also have a mutual assist policy — we transport everybody. We use an eight-hour window where we assign staff members to help our residents so nobody is left behind.

We discuss procedure and emergency plans with the residents and their families, too, so no one has to guess whether their loved ones will be cared for appropriately.

6. Know your safety resources.

Do you know what resources will be available to your local community in the aftermath of the disaster?

In Alameda, CA, for example, we know that the Coast Guard is available. We also have identified the facilities where we might need to send people, including the region’s various hospitals.

Cities have local task forces. Make sure to connect with them.

We have put people through the local Community Emergency Response Team program, which educates volunteers about disaster preparedness for the hazards that may affect their areas and trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations.

Disasters and emergencies happen. Planning is key and should be a practice at all senior living communities. We should never read on the news that residents have been left behind.

So, have a plan and make sure to communicate to all of your audiences: The residents, the families, staff, and the emergency personnel, among others before a disaster happens and practice, practice, practice. Everything will run more smoothly and everyone will be on the same page. It is our ethical responsibility to get this right.

See also: Emergency preparedness best practices

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