McALLEN Hospitals are a critical element within the disaster response system. They work closely with city and county response teams, other local and public health care providers and other agencies to plan, prepare for and respond to the needs of the community during natural or man-made disasters. Hospital emergency preparedness is a priority for South Texas Health System, as well as a key focus of regulatory and accrediting agencies like The Joint Commission.

During the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Preparedness Week (May 22 -28), South Texas Health System would like to remind residents that we should all be in a constant state of preparedness.

In order to prepare, every year South Texas Health System, in conjunction with community partners, performs a risk assessment to determine the greatest threats that could impact our facilities and region. The assessment is shared with local agencies to make them aware of identified risks and capabilities for handling these risks. The hospital system then reviews, updates or generates a plan to mitigate each identified risk. One of the greatest risks in this area is the probability for hurricanes and the threat of flooding.

"We have to be prepared and able to respond because hospitals are supposed to be a place where people can rely on receiving medical treatment during an emergency. Our readiness is even more critical because McAllen Medical Center is the designated lead trauma center for all of Hidalgo County. We have a lot of responsibility to the community to be prepared," said Marco Castor, Director of Engineering, Safety and Security for South Texas Health System. "South Texas Health System has a hurricane response plan that is evaluated annually and after every actual event or exercise. The emergency response plan covers four basic phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery."

Mitigation activities are activities taken to attempt to lessen the severity and impact of a tropical storm. We perform these activities prior to hurricane season. These activities include the structural assessment of all South Texas Health System facilities, the updating of our employee call back lists (to ensure adequate personnel will be available to staff the hospitals), updating of contact information for critical vendors, and updating hospital and department specific plans and training.

Activities undertaken to improve capacity and identify resources that may be used in a hurricane emergency fall under our preparedness activities. Some of these activities include the review of our Mutual Aid Agreements, taking inventories of critical supplies and resources, topping off generator fuel supplies, performing preventive maintenance on emergency generators and transfer switches, and ensuring that all communication equipment such as two way radios, emergency cell phones, and other communication devices are in working order.

Response activities take place during a hurricane. Critical components during this phase are communications, resources and asset management, securing of our facilities, staffing, continuity of utilities, and of course patient management. These activities are managed through the hospital command center and are implemented once the storm is imminent. The hospitals operate using a similar command structure to that of local, state and federal governments known as the Hospital Incident Command System, or HICS.

During the recovery phase, procedures are implemented to take us from an emergency situation back to normal operations mode. Activities include the physical assessment of the facilities and equipment, assessment of our service capabilities and staffing, and possibly the implementation of our mutual aid agreements.

"South Texas Health System would like to remind its more than 2,200 employees, 600 physicians on medical staff, 375 volunteers, and all members of the public that we all have a stake in determining how well we recover from a hurricane," said Steven Foster, Chief Operations Officer of Edinburg Regional Medical Center and Edinburg Children's Hospital, as well as the System Safety Chairman. "We tell all our personnel that they will more likely be able to focus and provide the highest level of care demanded by the situation if they first prepare themselves and their families. The same goes for all people. We can respond better if we are prepared and have taken mitigation steps since the last time the Valley was affected by a hurricane."

"A hurricane, by nature, is unpredictable, and South Texas Health System takes all threats very seriously. Our promise to the public is that we will do our absolute best to provide high quality health care no matter the situation," Foster said.