Stan Szpytek headshot
Stan Szpytek

Senior living communities may not consider an infectious disease situation such as the current response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the same traditional sense of other emergencies or disasters such as fire, flood, hurricane, earthquake or a wide range of fast-moving adverse events. These slower-moving incidents need to be handled with the type of organizational skills and prescriptive leadership that should be outlined in your senior living community’s emergency operation plan.

In response to major disasters that have affected our nation since Hurricane Katrina to last year’s devastating wildfires in California, senior living providers have gotten quite sophisticated when planning for emergencies and managing real-world adverse events. A good emergency operation plan uses a process known as hazard vulnerability assessment, or HVA, to assess all of the potential threats and perils that could affect a senior living community, both internally and externally. For example, hospitals and nursing homes use a standardized tool made publicly accessible to all healthcare providers by Kaiser Permanente to conduct a comprehensive HVA (downloadable here). If this process currently is not part of your senior living community’s emergency management program, it is highly recommended that you implement it.

Once all potential internal and external threats have been identified, including the emergence of an infectious disease outbreak, your emergency operation plan should provide guidance on how to appropriately respond to these emergency situations and disasters with an “all hazards” approach. To help ensure an efficient and standardized all hazards response, senior living communities should consider using the same emergency management model used by first-responders (fire, police, EMS, emergency management agencies, health departments, etc.), nursing homes, hospitals and other similar organizations, known as the incident command system.

An incident command system is a standardized system of command and control that should be included in a comprehensive emergency operation plan and is designed to provide clear leadership, delegation of authority and appropriate support functions for all types of emergencies and disasters. One of the main benefits of the incident command system is that it provides a standardized framework of incident management across all disciplines through the use of a common language and common practices.

The American Assisted Living Nursing Association, in partnership with the Emergency Management Alliance, has developed and published a version of an incident command system, known as the Assisted Living Incident Command System, that is applicable to assisted living facilities and senior living communities. These two organizations currently are providing all senior living providers with complimentary access to the ALICS and the other resources posted in its resource center. Simply follow the registration instructions and your access will be reviewed and approved.

Clearly, the focus of majority of activities currently underway at senior living communities pertains to the prevention of virus spread. To help meet this objective, using your senior living community’s emergency operation plan will help your team manage this emergent situation with the same level of proficiency that it operates at during other common emergency situations to help protect the health and safety of your residents, staff and visitors.

As a life safety and disaster planning consultant working with several senior living providers around the nation, I have seen first-hand how the dedicated employees of senior living communities have used their emergency operations plan to successfully manage emergencies and disasters regardless of the scope, severity and duration of anticipated incidents such as hurricanes and emergent infectious disease outbreaks as well as unexpected adverse events like earthquakes and fast-moving wildfires.