Stan Szpytek headshot
Stan Szpytek
Stan Szpytek headshot
Stan Szpytek

As assisted living communities and other senior living communities continue to refine their emergency planning protocols, a critical step in the process is to consider the potential consequences resulting from the direct or indirect effects of identified threats and perils.

Below are some examples of the types of questions to consider.

What are the potential direct or indirect consequences of the following adverse scenarios?

  • Supply chain disruption affecting the delivery of medications and food supplies.
  • Long-term electrical power disruption (more than a day or two).
  • Contaminated public water supply.
  • Cyber attack compromising access to medical records.
  • Organized labor action against a senior services provider.
  • Severe weather forecasted for the next 48 hours.

Good emergency planning practices dictate that senior services providers should identify all potential threats and perils that can adversely affect operations both from an internal (facility-based) and external (community-based) perspective. In addition to simply identifying the hazards that are unique to individual senior living communities, providers also should focus on the potential consequences associated with the risks so that appropriate plans and protocols can be developed to protect all stakeholders.

In previous times, when less focus was placed on emergency planning in the senior living environment, emergency plans were developed in a very basic manner and did not consider all of the hazards that could affect an operation. Many providers developed emergency plans that generally aligned with geographic factors associated with the location of their property. For example, communities in seismically active areas focused on planning for earthquakes, providers in coastal regions primarily were concerned with hurricanes, and properties located in the Midwest prepared for tornadoes and other forms of severe weather.

The concept that now is embraced by many senior living communities uses an “all hazards” approach to planning for emergencies and disasters. This process includes identifying all of the potential threats and perils that can affect operations through a risk analysis process known as a hazard vulnerability assessment. 

But identifying the hazards alone is simply not enough. Planning for the potential consequences of the identified risk and perils is an essential component of a comprehensive emergency and disaster preparedness planning process. One thing that emergency planners know for sure is that emergency situations often times go sideways, or at least not in accordance with the procedures that are prescriptively cited in a typical emergency plan.

Here’s an example:

An identified risk in every senior living community is the potential for an electrical power disruption. The potential consequences of a power failure often are mitigated by the fact that many facilities, but not all, are equipped with an emergency generator to provide alternate power. But what happens during a real-world power failure when the emergency generator fails to start or the generator catches fire while it is operating? Those exact scenarios have happened to senior living providers in the past.

The emergency planning process needs to include contingencies that address those types of questions based on this particular example.

  • What if the facility is not equipped with an emergency generator?
  • What if the generator fails to start because the battery is dead?
  • What if the generator shuts down due to a broken radiator hose?
  • What if the generator catches fire during operation?
  • How is the generator’s fuel re-supplied when a power failure lasts longer than normal and the fuel supply is running low?
  • And so on.

Here’s another example:

If severe weather is identified as a high-risk peril at a particular senior living community, then planning and preparing should focus on the potential consequences of the severe weather. Here are some questions that need to be asked regarding the consequences of severe weather:

  • What if the roof is torn off of one or more of the buildings on campus? 
  • What if the power goes out?
  • What if the facility is flooded?
  • What if staff members can’t get to work because of downed power lines and downed trees as well as other scattered debris due to a tornado touchdown where all roads are blocked? 

The disaster preparedness planning process is constant, not a “one and done” task that maybe is given some focus once a year as a particular season, such as hurricane or tornado season, approaches. The “what if” questions must be continuously considered.

Planning and managing the potential consequences of all identified hazards helps refine the emergency and disaster preparedness planning process. As much effort, if not more, should be dedicated to consequence management. 

One final example:

It is understood that an impending hurricane may require people in a facility in Florida to either shelter in place or evacuate. Subsequently, comprehensive emergency plans and protocols area developed to execute those procedures. This is a good example of managing the consequences of an identified hazard.

Senior living providers must remember that they are given the awesome responsibility of providing care, compassion and other services to some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, especially during an adverse incident or disaster. The emergency planning process must consider the potential consequences of a facility’s identified threats and perils to develop meaningful emergency plans to help safeguard residents, staff members and visitors at all times.

Stan Szpytek is the president of the national consulting firm Fire and Life Safety, Inc., based in Mesa, AZ. He is a consultant for the American Assisted Living Nurses Association and is the life safety/disaster planning consultant for the Arizona Health Care Association, the California Association of Health Facilities and the Utah Health Care Association. Szpytek is a former deputy fire chief and fire marshal with more than 40 years of experience in life safety compliance and emergency preparedness. For more information, visit or e-mail Szpytek at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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