Overcoming Uncertainty When Responding to Severe Weather

Overcoming Uncertainty When Responding to Severe Weather

Focus on objective activation criteria to improve severe weather decision-making.

It’s 9 p.m. on a Saturday night in late April. Members of the emergency management team at Arkansas Children’s have TVs tuned to the different local news reports, computer monitors are filled with radar, and various weather apps are open on smartphones. Severe thunderstorms are in the forecast, bringing with them a threat of tornadoes. As the only pediatric health system, burn center and Level 1 Pediatric Trauma Center in the state, the team at Arkansas Children’s keeps a close eye on the weather. 

An emergency management program is essential for hospitals to ensure safe and secure operations. In addition to a well-executed response, the team at Arkansas Children’s developed a clearly defined response plan.

Identifying severe weather threats

Arkansas Children’s has hospitals, clinics and satellite locations across the state in the south-central region of the United States and is certified as a StormReady facility by the National Weather Service. This region is known for a high fatality rate from tornadoes, as they’re often strong, long-track tornadoes that move at higher speeds and typically form in the evening. These tornadoes are harder to see, and people are less likely to be aware of the threat.

Tornadoes aren’t the only issue. Severe ice and snow events, flash flooding, tropical-storm force winds, as well as severe thunderstorms and lightning are typical for the area. Additionally, Arkansas Children’s is part of the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) and must be ready to receive evacuated patients from Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Turning to the weather experts

While the emergency management program at Arkansas Children’s was effective, the stress of monitoring so many threats took a toll on the team. It became clear that the team needed the help of professional meteorologists to provide weather forecasts targeted to the health system’s specific locations.

The local National Weather Service was a long-standing partner in this effort, but during severe weather outbreaks their resources are strained. The team at Arkansas Children’s needed a resource that could provide detailed forecasts for each of the facilities, proactively monitor weather and notify the system leaders of potential threats.

Ultimately, Arkansas Children’s partnered with a third-party weather forecasting service that provides real-time access to meteorologists. This partnership addresses the biggest challenge faced by the emergency management team at Arkansas Children’s. It guarantees 24/7 access to meteorologists and ensures organization leaders have accurate and up-to-date information from the experts.

Enhancing emergency preparedness and response

When revising the procedures to incorporate the weather forecasting service, the team discovered that having targeted weather information was only one piece of the puzzle. The existing plans for weather response were scattered among multiple policies and procedures and did not address all weather threats to the area.

The team also identified that the plans sometimes lacked clear criteria for when to activate a response action, so by integrating various plans they created the Adverse Weather Plan.

The new plan applied the intel of emerging weather patterns to trigger a coordinated response such as moving patients to safer rooms, directing a helicopter to change its landing location, adjusting staffing needs or procuring additional supplies.

Tips for designing a comprehensive plan

Key questions to consider when developing a weather plan include:

Does the plan incorporate all weather risks? Be sure the plan accounts for all different weather threats to your region. Most teams are prepared for the most prevalent weather threat, but they shouldn’t overlook the less frequently occurring threats.

Are the activation criteria, or triggers, well defined? There should be no ambiguity about whether a trigger has been met.

Is it clear what response to take? After triggers are defined, the next step is to clearly state the frontline and leadership actions that must take place. Any action that should be taken needs to be outlined in plain language to ensure transparency and accountability.

What is your “one source of truth?” No two meteorologists are going to completely agree on everything. Whether working with a weather partner or accessing publicly available data from the National Weather Service, what’s most important is that all members of the team, and all decision-makers, are referencing the same data points when making decisions.

Responding to severe weather

With the new plan in place, Arkansas Children’s knows what steps to take based on the forecast conditions. While this can seem straightforward, there is no such thing as 100% certainty with a weather forecast. Access to meteorologists to answer questions and provide interpretation has proven essential to the team at Arkansas Children’s. The meteorologist tells the team what to be worried about, when to be worried about it, and explains the potential effects.

Written By:
Daren Bolen, CHFM, CHEP
Emergency Management Program Manager, Arkansas Children's Hospital

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