Being prepared for an emergency is more than just having some extra water and flashlights. For an organization that takes care of more than 80,000 Veterans a year, it means having plans for every reasonable scenario and practicing those plans so Veterans are cared for when the worst happens.
From what to do if there is an earthquake to how to evacuate in case of a fire, Emergency Manager James Baumann is constantly developing plans to ensure that Veterans served here are safe. Baumann’s unique background includes extensive experience in emergency management and a personal history as a engineer, demolitionist, and military medic. Add to this his work in counter-terrorism and he has few peers in VA.
Even the most robust plans require practice though and much of Baumann’s time is spent developing and leading the organization in emergency simulations that often include volunteers acting as wounded patients that must be treated and moved. Complicating matters further are the geographical challenges of a health care system spread out from the coast to the mountains and from Canada to Chehalis.
“If you look at the most likely events and how they would impact us (earthquakes, floods, volcanic activity), we have a lot of things to cover compared to other areas of the country,” Baumann states. “The best way to be ready for them all is by taking the more likely events and stressing the basics, the commonalities and the key principles.”
What does preparedness mean to VA Puget Sound and Mr. Baumann? It means the constant reviewing of response plans, community coordination with county and regional jurisdictions plus a minimum of six exercises every year in addition to four to six real world events that have a local impact. Being prepared also means working with the hospital’s services and facilities management to identify shelter areas and evacuation procedures which lately can be extra challenging given the changes going on at both divisions. “We have been doing a lot of construction lately and there are complicated issues involved, Baumann said. “All the key participants work well together in planning for success to meet all the needs. Our facilities management and hospital leadership does a great job of coordination in that regard.”
Being prepared is something taken seriously not only here but across the VA. “Our facilities work hard to ensure we are prepared for an emergency,” said Ed James, Area Emergency Manager for the VA Northwest Health Network. “We do this through a comprehensive process of planning, training, and exercise where we learn from our exercises and make continuous improvements to our emergency preparedness programs.”
Local emergencies are not the only type to which Baumann’s program responds. VA Puget Sound professionals with many different types of skills are also in demand to quickly respond to national emergencies. Baumann coordinated the staff deployments to several national emergencies including Hurricanes Rita (2005), Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), Gustav (2008)and the 2009 floods in North Dakota. “My VA training through the disaster response program prepared me emotionally and logistically for two deployments as a disaster relief social worker for both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike,” said VA Puget Sound’s Alicia Sloan. “Social workers are trained to be very resourceful at offering psychological “first aid” to evacuees and other disaster relief volunteers, as well as problem solve quickly during crises and highly stressful situations, and perform professionally during very challenging circumstances.”
While a disaster or other emergency is something that no one wants to happen, VA Puget Sound is in a constant state of preparedness to handle such an event, whether it be here or abroad.