Managing emergencies in general practice

Part B – Emergency planning and response

Pre-planning

Last revised: 01 Jun 2017

Emergency planning is the process of identifying, reviewing and updating a series of appropriate actions for managing an emergency. The emergency planning process is fluid and ongoing and any emergency response plan developed is seen as a working document that is reviewed and updated as circumstances within the practice change.

Assigning responsibility for emergency planning to one staff member in a small practice will ensure a consistent and coordinated approach. It may also be worth considering appointing a deputy emergency management coordinator in the event that the primary emergency management coordinator is on extended leave or becomes ill during an emergency.

When appointing a staff member, it is important to consider their role in the practice, their level of experience, whether they have a broad understanding of the practice, and where they live.

If your practice is larger, you might choose to appoint an emergency response committee with a chairperson and representatives from other disciplines. This approach means that the source of knowledge does not lie with one person. This is particularly important if there are staff changes or if committee members become unwell or unavailable during an emergency. If your practice appoints an emergency response committee it is important to hold regular meetings with an agenda, written minutes and action items.

Emergency management coordinator role summary

The emergency management coordinator/committee:

  • has up-to-date knowledge and skills relating to emergency planning and management (which is specific to the location of the practice)
  • communicates this knowledge to other practice staff
  • prepares, regularly reviews (at least quarterly) and updates an emergency response plan for the practice
  • provides training and education to the entire practice team about the plan
  • tests or exercises the plan (or components of the plan) annually
  • provides practice staff access to the plan at any time
  • make decisions as to whether/when the emergency response plan needs to be activated
  • is responsible for building and maintaining relationships with other nearby practices and Primary Health Networks (PHNs) to discuss strategies of working together in the event of an emergency
  • is responsible for connecting with local council and local emergency services.

To start the planning process, it is recommended that the emergency management coordinator(s) research:

  • the extent to which the practice is located in a disaster-prone area
  • the landscape and surroundings of the practice to understand what additional steps need to be taken to protect the practice’s infrastructure
  • the demographics of the patients to identify vulnerable patients/patient groups in the event of an emergency
  • residential aged care facilities (RACFs) close to the practice to ensure that patients residing in RACFs are able to access appropriate care in the event of an emergency
  • the support provided by the relevant PHN to ensure better integration of services
  • local emergency services to ensure effective communication and emergency management
  • previous events that have affected the practice or community to understand what can be learnt from past events
  • practice support facilities such as ambulance services, pharmacies and community nurses to identify what other services may be of assistance in an emergency.

The emergency management coordinator will be able to access this important information from local councils and local government emergency management committees.

Obtaining and documenting the above information will assist in the planning process and inform the overall development of the practice’s emergency response plan.

Box 2 outlines important considerations that the emergency management coordinator should take into account during the planning process.

Box 2. Important considerations during the planning process

  • Has the facility been damaged by flooding in the past?
  • Is the practice located close to the waterfront, a river, stream, reservoir or any other body of water?
  • What are the published and predicted flood levels for your area?
  • Has information been obtained from the local council and emergency services regarding other flood/disaster plans and relevant evacuation assembly points and routes?
  • Does the emergency response plan outline the appropriate actions for the different predicted floodwater levels?
  • Is the practice located in a bushfire-prone area?
  • What are the fire warning levels in the area (which are determined by the local fire agency)?
  • Has the practice previously been affected by bushfires?
  • Has the practice previously been affected by cyclones?
  • Does the emergency response plan include a link to the Bureau of Meteorology’s cyclone watch website?
  • Has the practice previously been affected by earthquakes?

It is essential that staff are aware of the precise layout of the practice, where evacuation/assembly points are located and where critical emergency supplies are stored, in order to manage an emergency effectively.

As part of the emergency planning process, the emergency management coordinator should draw up a comprehensive floor plan of the practice, highlighting the specific location of:

  • an evacuation route
  • a safe assembly point
  • fire extinguishers
  • the main shut-off valves for water and gas
  • heating/air conditioning equipment
  • the electrical master switch
  • hazardous material (eg chemicals)
  • the emergency kit (as discussed in Section 1.4)
  • first aid equipment
  • outside water taps and hoses
  • security and fire alarm systems
  • underground or overhead power lines.

In an emergency, some towns can expect to be isolated for days or weeks, depending on road and other infrastructure damage. The emergency management coordinator should ensure that a generous amount of critical supplies is stored onsite in the event of an emergency. Further, the emergency management coordinator should gather and/or purchase appropriate resources and equipment to build an emergency kit that can be used by practice staff in the event of an emergency.

Box 3 outlines some of the items to include in the emergency kit.

Box 3. Emergency kit supplies

Disinfectant

Battery-powered radio (including spare batteries)

Detergent

Torches (including spare batteries)

Additional first aid kits

Fully charged mobile phone

Plastic and garbage bags

Fire extinguisher with instructions

Bottles of clean water

Additional doctor’s bags with extra medications

Non-perishable food items

Small supply of office stationery

Medical certificate pad

Prescription pad

Equipment and supplies

General practices hold specialised equipment and medical supplies, such as diagnostic equipment, pharmaceuticals and vaccines. Disasters can have devastating effects on the practice’s infrastructure, including all of its contents.

As part of the emergency planning process, it is advisable to create and maintain a hard copy and electronic log of all medical equipment and supplies in the practice. In the event that some or all of the contents are destroyed, practice staff can quickly assess what equipment and supplies have been lost or damaged and what requires replacing.