BANGOR, Maine — When Allison Cowen, clinical coordinator for Hancock County HomeCare and Hospice, thought about emergency preparedness a year ago she really was only thinking about escaping a fire.
“I thought we should all meet out in the parking lot,” she told those gathered Tuesday at the Continuum of Care Operational Preparedness and Emergency Response conference. “And I thought I was prepared.”
During a break shortly afterward, she admitted that she hadn’t considered other potential events — such as an enraged person armed with a gun entering a facility or having all the computers go down at the same time — as emergencies, but they are.
“It was an eye-opener,” Cowen said of joining with dozens of other agency leaders who began meeting in January to discuss and create emergency plans designed for long-term care and home-health agency facilities in Maine.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Eastern Maine Medical Center and the Northeastern Maine Regional Resources Center came together and worked to create a comprehensive and coordinated emergency response plan with 68 regional agencies that serve thousands of Maine patients.
“We took national-based standards and boiled that down to our region,” Lisa Harvey, vice president of the Continuum of Care Operational Preparedness and Emergency Response planning initiative, said to those gathered for the daylong conference at Spectacular Event Center. “Rural communities are different.”
A needs assessment was the first thing completed and it was easy to see from the survey results that many in the group of long-term care and home-health agencies needed to make changes.
Most had basic emergency plans, but the plans primarily addressed short-term emergencies, such as a fire, and “most didn’t have alternative care site plans in place” and did “not address triage of causalities, quarantines and decontamination,” said Shannon Flavin, a Northeastern Maine Regional Resources Center presenter.
Also, most providers do not have memorandums of understandings with pharmacies and other service providers, which is one thing that many in the group already have begun to actively change, she said.
“If [a major emergency] were to happen, most times you won’t be able to stand alone,” Flavin said. “Most do not communicate with outside agencies such as the Red Cross.”
Having strong communication systems is another need that most of the Maine facilities have — and testing plans is another, she said.
“The whole thing will be brought down if you can’t communicate. That is something we know we need to address,” Flavin said. “Drills are expensive, but you don’t really know how good your plan is until you go through a drill.”
That is why regional partnerships are so important, she said.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who helped secure the $640,000 in federal funding used to create the emergency preparedness plans, said on a video statement at the conference that the finished plans soon will be published and will be available for other providers countrywide.
“The plans created here in Maine will benefit our entire nation,” the Republican senator said.
She also said it is “those of you on the front lines in our communities that truly make the difference in a crisis. Whether a natural disaster, an accident, or a terrorist attack, we can only meet this challenge by working together.”
Allison Bankston, project manager of the Northeastern Maine Regional Resources Center’s continuum of care initiative, said the group has learned several key lessons since it started its work on Jan. 24. Most important, she said, is that “a lot of work needs to be done.”
The nearly complete emergency preparedness plans can be used by any agency and will be updated with feedback given at Tuesday’s conference, she said. The plans will be sent to the CDC for final approval and then will be made available in print and online.
While there are many areas that need to be addressed, staff training is one of the biggest needs at most facilities, Bankston said.
“Everybody needs to know their role in an emergency,” she said. “We need to include everybody.”