In March 2005 the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the HHS Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness published a report of guidelines for officials on how to plan for delivering health and medical care in a mass casualty event.1
After federal, state, and local authorities’ failure to supply desperately needed assistance following Hurricane Katrina, that report of recommendations from a 39-member panel of experts in bioethics, emergency medicine, emergency management, health administration, health law, and policy is more crucial than ever. This report offers a framework for providing optimal medical care during a potential bioterrorist attack or other public health emergency.
How well do you know your institutions’ plans and protocols for these types of events? How personally prepared are you and your families? Overall, what should your highest concerns be in order to prepare yourself now and in the future?
The term disaster is defined many ways, but typically all definitions involve some sort of impact on the community and interruption of services from business as usual beyond the point where outside assistance is needed. Defining what is meant by a mass casualty incident (MCI), on the other hand, is more relative to the location in which it is being declared.
“Typically a mass casualty event is thought of as one in which the number of patients exceeds the amount of resources that are routinely available,” says Andrew Garrett, MD, FAAP, the director of disaster response and pediatric preparedness programs at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health, New York. “But that is a dynamic definition because in Chicago a bus accident with 15 patients might not be a mass casualty incident, but in rural Cody, Wyoming, a car accident with four people might be. It’s where you exceed the resources that are available locally that is important.”
The difference between an emergency, a disaster, or an MCI revolves more around semantics, the environment in which you will work, and the short-term goals of patient care. “We’re not asking people to reinvent the way in which they practice medicine,” says Dr. Garrett “but a disaster or MCI changes the paradigm in which they do it—to do the most good for the most people.”
Who’s in Charge?
The Hospital Emergency Incident Command System (HEICS) was adapted from a plan to coordinate and improve the safety of the wildland firefighting system in California. It was transitioned to serve as a model in hospitals to meet the same goals of staff accountability and safety during a disaster response. HEICS places one “incident commander” at the top of the pyramid in charge of all the separate areas of responsibility, such as logistics, finance, operations, medical care, safety, and so on.
“The way the system works,” says Dr. Garrett, “is that everyone working in a hospital response is supervised by only one person who answers to the command staff. The goal is that there’s one incident commander who knows everything that’s going on at the incident to avoid the trap of multiple people making command decisions at the same time.”
Redundant command structure is a common problem in a large-scale response to disaster. That was certainly the case in Hurricane Katrina, he says, where multiple agencies—federal, state, and local—did not follow this model of disaster response.