Emergency Department Inpatient Practice

Disaster Drill Management

This week, our city staged a mass-casualty disaster drill. In preparing for it, I found that there is very little written about the medical director’s responsibilities in disaster preparation. The scenario was this: terrorists explode bombs at Mapfre stadium (home to the Columbus Crew professional soccer team) and John Glenn Airport then attack civilians with guns. At the same time, a truck runs into a crowd at Otterbein University and then the driver gets out and starts shooting into the crowd. In this year’s mock disaster, there are 500 trauma victims that are then dispersed to hospitals throughout Central Ohio.

The Joint Commission requires U.S. hospitals to do at least 2 disaster drills per year and each one is a little different. For example, we’ve had a simulated plane crash at the airport and a simulated super-flu epidemic in the past. The hospital sets up a command center and everyone wears a vest with a tag identifying that person’s role – incident commander, medical director, logistics director, communications director, public relations, etc. The medical director’s job can be summarized in two words: inventory and coordinate. Inventory available physician resources and coordinate to direct those resources to where they are needed. Here is how I approach it:

Designate on-site physician leaders in key areas. They don’t necessarily have to be specialists in those areas but they need to be knowledgable about those particular physicians and their needs. So, for example, a hospitalist could coordinate for the ICU and an anesthesiologist could coordinate the surgeons. The key physician areas are:

  • Emergency department
  • Intensive care unit and critical care
  • Surgery
  • Anesthesia
  • Hospitalists and medical specialists

Inventory physician assets. Find out who you have currently on-site in the hospital and who can be called in from home or outpatient locations. Don’t forget about residents or fellows. Start by paging all of the physicians who are scheduled to be working in the hospital that day and tally who you have from what specialties. Then page all of the physicians from specialties that you anticipate needing to determine who could come in to the hospital immediately if it was a real disaster. It is a good idea to use administrative staff to do this because it can be time consuming for you if 100 doctors are trying to respond to your pages. Also, do not have physicians call in to a phone number to confirm their availability because with a lot of physicians all trying to call in at the same time, they will just get a busy signal. Instead use text messaging and/or email. Because normal transportation routes may be impassable in a disaster, be prepared to give physicians that are driving to the hospital advice on the best routes to take to get in. The highest priority include:

  • ER physicians
  • General surgeons
  • Critical care physicians
  • Anesthesiologists
  • Orthopedic surgeons

Depending on the specific disaster, you may also need hospitalists, radiologists, oral maxillofacial/ENT surgeons, ophthalmologists, or infectious disease

Inventory dischargable/transferable patients.

  • Contact each admitting service/hospitalist to determine how many patients could be discharged immediately in order to free up bed capacity.
  • Determine how many patients can be transferred out of the ICU and PCU immediately to lower acuity hospital units.
  • Inventory emergency department patients who could be moved to other locations immediately (medical boarders waiting for an inpatient bed, psychiatric holds, etc.).
  • Determine number of level 1, 2, 3, 4. & 5 patients in the ED and how many of the low acuity patients could be moved out of ED bays immediately to create ED capacity.
  • Determine how many operating rooms you currently have open and how many you would have if you canceled all of the day’s elective surgical cases. For those operating rooms that currently have a surgery taking place, how long will the surgery take to complete so that you can use that OR for disaster victims?

Identify and inventory alternative treatment locations. What areas in the hospital could be converted to ICU-level care? For an ICU bed you basically have to have medical gases, monitoring equipment, and enough room to fit the patient plus equipment such as a ventilator. The PACU (surgical pre-op/post-op area) is a natural fit but it will likely be used for operating room support so other hospital locations may be more prudent. In our hospital, 2 areas that could be converted to ICU areas include the cath lab recovery rooms and the endoscopy suite recovery rooms.

What locations could be converted to non-surgical treatment areas? In a mass casualty event, there will be a lot of minor injuries, the so-called “walking wounded”. You will want to direct those victims to other locations so that you don’t clog up the emergency department and the operating room. Think “outside the box” to determine what units could be used for caring for minor injuries. For example, ambulatory clinic space can be used for treatment of minor abrasions and burns. At our hospital, we have a outpatient wound center and it can be converted to a temporary burn unit.

Work with the rest of the disaster center leaders to inventory equipment and supplies that your physicians will need. As the physician lead in the disaster command center, you will often be the one most knowledgable about needed resources:

  • Mechanical ventilators will be needed to support victims needing to go the ICU; if there are a lot of surgical casualties, you may also need additional ventilators in the PACU because the anesthesiologists may not have sufficient time to extubate patients in the OR in order to expedite patient flow in and out of the OR. If you don’t have enough ventilators and BiPAP units in the hospital, how many can your medical supply vendor get you on short notice? Many communities (including Columbus) have emergency depot supplies of gas-powered ventilators that are not very fancy but will work in a pinch.
  • IV fluids will be needed and often in large amounts. How many bags of lactated Ringers, saline, and plasmalyte do you have in stock?
  • What is your current supply of blood for transfusions including number of units of O negative blood?
  • Tetanus toxoid supplies in the pharmacy?
  • Trauma tourniquets – how many do you have and where are they located?
  • Central line kits – how many do you have in your hospital’s inventory?

Coordinate patient flow from ED triage physicians to appropriate inpatient/OR locations. In a true disaster, there will inevitably be some degree of unanticipated chaos. You will need to ensure adequate physician staffing at hospital locations managing victims and re-direct physicians to needed locations. The most effective way to do this is to use your various physician site/specialty leaders to give you on-site reports. Make sure you have their cell phone numbers loaded into your cell phone and use group texting so all of your physicians are getting up to date information.

Do a debriefing with your physicians. Find out what went well and what you can improve on the next time.

A great reference for disaster management is: Care of the Critically Ill and Injured During Pandemics and Disasters: CHEST Consensus Statement. October 2014:

April 6, 2017

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital