Milton Smith made a modest investment in his Internet connection two years ago. The managing partner of north Florida’s Rising Oaks Assisted Living Facility wanted faster service. What he got was a high-speed line that stayed up through a hurricane.

And Irma wasn’t just any hurricane but an Atlantic Category 5 that swamped the state from South Beach to the Okefenokee. The storm lashed north Florida with heavy rainfall that forced rooftop evacuations by watercraft in places.

The upgrade Smith made was in a new optical fiber pipeline, a light-speed connection capable of bandwidth measured in gigabits per second — one that Smith hung his entire telephone system on.

“You want to experience anxiety? Let a storm roll in like what hit us in October 2018,” Milton Smith told us more recently. This time it was Hurricane Michael.

Hurricanes along the coast, tornadoes in the Midwest, wildfires in California — natural disasters are growing in scale and frequency. Operators of senior long-term care and assisted living communities have a solemn responsibility that, without adequate planning and necessary investment, can turn tragic as it did in Hollywood Hills after Irma.

Communication comes first. In 2016, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services adopted a new rule requiring 17 types of providers, as well as suppliers, to take steps toward emergency preparedness by creating, among other standards, a communications plan. States such as Florida have their additional laws and regulations covering senior living operators and other businesses.

Smith was planning two years ago for new communications. The custom IP-based communications system designed and delivered for him put about three dozen voice lines over his IP service (Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) and even incorporated a room-to-room and facility-wide intercom system. This cloud-based solution can be outfitted with a failover 4G wireless network backup in the event the primary network connection goes down.

Among the communication priority partners named in the 2016 CMS rule are first responders, residents’ physicians and healthcare providers, public health departments and emergency management agencies. Of course, there are other, equally important stakeholders, Smith told us.

“Families that can’t get in touch with their loved ones, that’s why the need for a system that really works is so stringent in this setting,” he said.

The handheld telephones worked without interruption. The fiber internet connection hasn’t failed Rising Oaks yet.

A communication plan is one thing, but investing in a hearty communications system is another. Many facilities must update in order to carry out their plan of action. Thanks to an expanding fiber investment by Windstream and other providers, the technology exists to connect all devices including landline telephones to the most reliable and secure fiber network available, now with a 4G network connection for redundancy. 

Calling for help or to check on loved ones, or following news updates or alerts from weather centers and emergency agencies, no longer is where contingency planning has to start.

Last year, then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill requiring facilities that house seniors to invest in electrical backup generators. Other states, such as Oklahoma, followed. Given the federal emphasis on communications plans and the increasing ease of installing high-speed connections, we believe every acute and post-acute-care facility and senior living community should bring fiber directly into their complexes.

Smith says he’s happy and confident that “there’s no faster internet connection, more consistent internet connection, more reliable internet connection” anywhere and that he would have made the investment earlier if he’d known its full benefits.

We’re happy to tell this story if it prevents future cautionary tales. A storm, even a hurricane, doesn’t have to be a disaster.