Planning for the “Big One?” Stay rational, expert says

News Archive

Planning for the “Big One?” Stay rational, expert says

Emergency services director discusses that New Yorker article, 9.0 quakes and her preparations
Barbara Clements

Pacific Northwesterners have been on edge this week because of a New Yorker article about the Cascadia subduction zone, a fault line that separates the North American and Juan de Fuca tectonic plates. The article predicts that we’re all doomed, essentially, speculating that Western Washington and Oregon will crumble into the sea when a 9.0 earthquake rumbles through the area and destroys up to a million buildings and most bridges, liquefying downtown Seattle in the process.

Though the fault line exists and the quake danger is real, there is more to the story.

“When I teach this stuff, I always emphasize that it does no good to talk about absolute catastrophes,” said Anne Newcombe, Clinical Director of Emergency Services at Harborview Medical Center. “Then people get in the mindset of no planning, and ‘why bother?’ You just have people throwing their hands up into the air.”

Instead, focus on what can be done and what is probable, and extrapolate from there, she recommends. Here are a few of Newcombe’s very practical thoughts on emergency planning for the hospitals in the region and for families who want to be prepared.

Anne Newcombe
Clare McLean
Anne Newcombe is the Clinical Director of Emergency Services at Harborview Medical Center.
Anne Newcombe is the Clinical Director of Emergency Services at Harborview Medical Center.

Q: What do you focus on in emergency planning?
A: You focus on what will really, and most likely, impact the area. There will be wind in the winter for example, and you will likely lose power. So you do drills on that. We do drills at the hospital on major disasters, be they mass power outages, bombings—yes, earthquakes—or some incident which would result in mass casualties. The plans have to be flexible and nimble so they can be applied to the situation. We are supposed to do drills at least two times a year, but we do more drills than that on major disasters.

Harborview Medical Center is also the Disaster Medical Control Center for King County, which is unique to the community. For example, during an earthquake, we step in quickly, do a quick check of the region and find out which hospitals are open, which are not, and assist in directing patients to the nearest hospitals. We also prepare our staff.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: We train them all, from doctors to secretaries, to think like emergency workers. With this sort of event, you are going to be at work for a while, so we ask them to prepare their family at home, with plans and kits—which can tide over the family for up to 96 hours—so the emergency staff can focus on their work.

Each family should also have its own communications plan. The communication system will go down, so make sure you have a plan. Texting is a far more robust system than cell phones, for example. Build a communications plan on something reliable.

If the workers know their families are okay, they can stay at work longer and look after their patients, and focus.

Q: How is Harborview prepared?
A: We have the regular drills and our staff is trained. But we also have emergency generators for power. When First Hill lost power last week, the emergency generators kicked in within seconds. No one here really noticed. We also have extra water and fuel.
Q: Any last bits of advice?
A: Get to know your neighbors. Get to know your co-workers. And that toothbrush that the dentist gives you when you get a checkup? Keep it in your purse.

For more information about earthquake preparedness, visit this government site.

For providers interested in learning more about current issues in trauma care, register for our conference