Winter is almost here and a local health care system stands ready for whatever it may bring

Nov 30, 2017

The official start of winter is just weeks away and, so far, Western New York has dodged any significant cold or snow. But that doesn’t mean area medical facilities aren’t expecting it and staying ready.

The outside of Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, pre- and post-snow in November 2014.
Credit Catholic Health

From the “October Surprise” of 2006 to the “Snowvember” storm of 2014, Western New York is no stranger to extreme winter weather conditions. And with that experience comes plenty of lessons learned for local health care systems like Catholic Health.

Since 2000, the company has conducted what Chief Operating Officer Mark Sullivan calls a “hot wash” review of what went well and what could be improved after every storm. They also run “table-top” exercises of scenarios for the five hospitals and numerous other medical facilities Catholic Health operates across the region.

“It’s really important to note that this doesn’t happen in the fall before a snowstorm. We do this year-round,” said Sullivan. “So we will take a particular hospital and say, ‘There’s a snow emergency there. There’s ‘X’ amount of snow. How would we deal with it?’”

The key is communication.

In the midst of a storm, Catholic Health would do as it did in November 2014 and set up a command center at its corporate headquarters on Genesee Street in Buffalo. Sullivan said it becomes a staging area and hub for communication with law enforcement, Erie County, the Department of Health, and all of its own facilities and staff.

While access was limited to Mercy Hospital in the early days of the November 2014 storm, ambulances used the Mercy Ambulatory Care Center in Orchard Park. With staff and supplies maintained while patient numbers increased, Catholic Health says using the MACC resulted in numerous success stories and lives saved.
Credit Catholic Health

“We look for different surge levels in our emergency departments, and we have multiple calls throughout the day with our clinical leadership to determine the volumes and potential needs they may have,” Sullivan explained.

Winter typically brings cases of hypothermia, frostbite, and snow blower injuries to the doors of local hospitals. During the “October Surprise” of 2006, many also saw cases of carbon monoxide poisoning from increased generator usage. Sullivan said the emergency departments are prepared.

Because the Catholic Health system is spread across a wide region, with some facilities in Western New York’s snow belt, and some outside of it, resources from supplies to personnel can be cross-leveled to where they are needed most. When it comes to getting them there, all 9,000 of the system’s employees are considered emergency personnel, allowed to travel even when roads may be closed to the general public.

“It goes beyond the nurses and the physicians in the hospital,” said Sullivan. “You have the whole infrastructure, from facilities, to dietary, to environmental services. And those are what we would call essential workers as well.”

A photo taken from inside the truck of a Catholic Health Systems staff volunteer, transporting a member of the clinical staff to Mercy Hospital.
Credit Catholic Health

Over 200 of Catholic Health’s employees are also signed up as drivers for emergency situations, equipped with four wheel drive vehicles and “readiness bags.” They’re tasked to provide transportation to clinicians who may not be able to travel on their own. Some also have GPS radios for staff at the command post to monitor their whereabouts during a storm.

The New York State Department of Health requires Catholic Health’s facilities – like all other hospitals – to maintain at least 72 hours-worth of general supplies at all times. When the storm hit in November 2014, scores of family members were stranded at Mercy Hospital while visiting their loved ones and the hospital had to prepare 1500 meals – double their normal output. With that in mind, extra supplies beyond the 72 hours are now kept on hand during winter months, including food and rock salt. Hospital staff are also instructed to keep extra doses of prescription medication handy in case they can’t make it home at the end of a shift.

After the snow fell, facilities teams at Father Baker Manor (shown here) and other Catholic Health facilities prepared for the thaw, when snow would become heavier and possibly compromise roof structures.
Credit Catholic Health

When planning for storms, it’s not just about happens when it snows, it’s also about what happens afterwards. When the “Snovember” storm hit with more than 70 inches of snow, it came on a Sunday into Monday. But by Friday, forecasts were calling for temperatures in the low 40s. That meant potential flooding and snow turning from light and fluffy to wet and heavy. That “snow load” adds significant weight on the roofs of medical facilities, and can compromise heating and cooling systems. It’s why Catholic Health has a team of architects that assesses the structural capacity of its buildings.

In Sullivan’s mind, the worst-case scenario in a storm is what happens if people don’t communicate and stick to the plan. But just as important as the hospitals and other medical facilities being ready is for residents of Western New York to do the same.

Sullivan’s advice to the public – be prepared.

“It’s very important that you prepare your own home for things such as the supply of water, batteries, blankets, things that you would need. And also check on your elderly neighbors that may rely on power for oxygen or prescriptions.”

As with food and other items, it’s critical to have a three to five day supply of prescriptions on hand. And when illness strikes, it’s important to prioritize what calls for a trip to the hospital and what can be handled at home.