Preparing Your Hospital for an Earthquake: Three Things to Remember

The unpredictability of earthquake timing and size can be a significant challenge to hospital safety administrators and professionals. While the scale and scope of hospital damage in an earthquake is difficult to predict or manage (beyond Seismic building standards), a comprehensive Emergency Management Plan should include considerable thought into how hospital operations may be affected by earthquakes of varying size. Here are three things to consider when preparing your hospital for an earthquake:

Structural Damage Will Be Difficult to Assess
Post-earthquake, it is important to get an immediate assessment of structural damage to the hospital. An assessment should only be conducted by an expert civil structural engineer, most of which will be in great demand in the days and weeks following an earthquake. Structural assessment by an unqualified professional may lead to unnecessary and costly mistakes in evacuation decisions. The decision to evacuate a building, wing or floor of a hospital may be ambiguous enough with non-structural damage, but a mistaken structural integrity assessment can lead to significant operational and financial challenges. Just knowing that there are differences between planned earthquake expansions, real structural damage, and non-structural damage can be a good start to making good decisions in the aftermath of an earthquake.

Awareness and Preparedness for Non-Structural Damage
A “hidden vulnerability” of hospitals is non-structural damage resulting from an earthquake. Non-structural damage includes lighting fixtures, diagnostic equipment, elevators, and ceiling tiles and windows, among other things. Damage to non-structural equipment can lead to a slowdown or complete stoppage of hospital services (e.g. diagnostic equipment becomes inoperable or hallways become blocked or inaccessible). Although your hospital may be structurally sound, an earthquake may lead to operations becoming significantly, albeit temporarily, reduced due to preventable or manageable damage.

Your Internal Resources Will Be Stressed
Beyond the anticipated needs for additional emergency response resulting from injuries to victims of the earthquake, hospitals have seen resource management issues in unexpected operational areas. By preparing in advance, you may be able to mitigate the resource challenges and learn from hospitals in previous earthquakes.

  • Dietary and food service may be taxed under the increased demand for employees who can't get home, or stay longer at the hospital to treat more patients. Additionally, the hospital may become a magnet destination for the community if there's food shortage resulting from the earthquake. Additionally, food-related hospital equipment such as refrigerators and coolers may be damaged in a quake.
  • Housekeeping issues may arise as non-structural damage after an earthquake affects hospital operations. The amount of clean-up required has led to additional housekeeping requirements in the days and weeks following a major earthquake. Some hospitals have seen positive effects of housekeeping being used in non-structural damage cleanup.
  • Waste disposal may be affected by vendor inability to service hospital needs. In particular, paper products delivery and hazardous materials disposal have been challenges for earthquake-damaged hospitals.
  • Increased laundry demands (combined with potentially damaged laundry equipment) may be another resource strain following an earthquake.
  • Pharmaceutical storage and distribution may be affected by damage from an earthquake. If power is lost, refrigerated pharmaceuticals may be lost or rendered ineffective – and may be difficult to acquire quickly from the surrounding areas. Unanchored storage of pharmaceuticals can cause significant delays in providing necessary medication to patients.

For more information, FEMA provides a QuakeSmart Toolkit with actionable and scalable basic guidance and tools for the private sector about the importance of earthquake mitigation and the simple things businesses can do to reduce the potential of earthquake damages, injuries, and financial losses.