Nothing teaches disaster preparedness like experience. Just ask leaders at Spectrum Health, Grand Rapids, Mich.

In May 2008, while performing takeoff and landing exercises atop Spectrum Health's Butterworth Hospital, a helicopter's tail rotor clipped a radio tower, causing it to crash on the helipad. A fire ensued and fuel leaked into an elevator shaft, causing the evacuation of the 11-story patient tower and loss of power for about 25 minutes. No one was seriously injured, but the event brought about disaster plan changes, many of which can serve as a lesson for others.

Since the crash, Spectrum Health has:

  • Implemented a 24-hour facilities management call center.
  • Dedicated a larger command center space with restricted access to a defined set of leaders.
  • Purchased two-way radios exclusively for emergency command center use.
  • Installed a larger helipad and a fire-suppression system.
  • Set up meetings with the fire department to better understand its command center setup and terminology.
  • Significantly increased disaster drills.

Julie Bulson, Spectrum Health director of emergency preparedness, and Tom Theoret, director of facilities support services, offer this advice to health care facilities:

Automate emergency plans. Perform exercises until staff know how to respond and do so reflexively, as they do when codes are called. Spectrum Health conducts monthly exercises with electricians so they'll know automatically how to isolate power throughout the complex without putting patients, visitors or staff in danger, Bulson says.

Discourage self-deployment of staff. Make sure staff know where to deploy during an emergency. Spectrum Health has developed a virtual personnel pool; staff in this group wait to hear from the command center on where to deploy and can stay productive in their area until needed.

Build successful, tested relationships before an emergency. Police and fire officials often use different terminology and may have expectations about where a hospital's command center will be and how to reach key facility decision-makers in a crisis. Be sure there is a common understanding of these issues before a disaster.