Disaster communications need to be improved

While ED the staff at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis responded quickly and efficiently following the collapse of an interstate bridge, John L. Hick, MD, medical director for emergency preparedness, already has set in motion actions to remedy the few shortcomings that were noted.

"The single biggest challenge was on the communications end," he says, echoing a common theme in disaster response evaluations. "The switchboard was jammed, and as a consequence, our internal phone system prioritized internal calls over external calls."

That's normally a good thing, he concedes, but all the lines in the ED are "ring-down" lines, so when someone picked up a phone, there would be another caller that had been rolled over from a busy phone line.

Hick says he is looking into adding some lines in the ED that are not "ring-down" lines. How was this problem overcome during the response to the bridge collapse? "We used runners to pass messages back and forth between the ED and the hospital command post," says Hick. The runners, appointed by the command post, included radiology technicians. "Also, when they saw that CT scanners would soon be ready for the next person, they passed on that information as well," he says.

Hick also is about to purchase a two-way, "push-to-talk" 900 MHz radio system for the hospital, something that was planned before the disaster. "We had radios for the ED, but we did not have a system that works for most of the hospital," he explains. "Now we will have a radio near each CT scanner and in each OR."