As catastrophic events—from meteorological disasters to violent crimes and infectious outbreaks—increase in frequency and severity, the science of emergency preparedness has evolved significantly. Given Partners HealthCare’s role not only as Massachusetts’ largest employer, but as essential responders in times of need, ensuring that we are at the forefront of that science is critical.

Enter the Partners Department of Emergency Preparedness, a team of experts dedicated to supporting each Partners institution, and the network as a whole, in responding and recovering from any type of disaster. “Our first goal is prevention, but there’s always going to be a level of risk we can’t mitigate,” explains Katie Kemen, Senior Manager of Emergency Preparedness at Partners. “We focus on evaluating and prioritizing those risks, making sure our response is strong, and then learning from every event—whether in or beyond our own backyard.”

That formula starts with a Hazard Vulnerability Analysis, an annual process to identify top hazards based on the probability of catastrophic events occurring, their expected impact to the organization, and existing preparedness. The high—and sharply rising—likelihood of flooding and damaging winds, for example, demands partnerships with colleagues in facilities across the network to ensure Partners buildings are resilient enough to maintain patient care through powerful storms.

At times, weather events far beyond Boston can carry unforeseen complications for our patient care. In 2017, as Hurricane Maria moved through the Caribbean, it damaged manufacturing facilities in Puerto Rico‚ disrupting the global supply of IV fluids. Facilitated by Emergency Preparedness, employees in supply chain, pharmacy, and nursing, and others, mobilized to identify alternative fluids suppliers; access the Partners backup cache of IV supplies; and identify alternative hydration methods, to conserve IV fluids for those patients who could not be hydrated through other means.

As part of a federal demonstration project, Massachusetts trauma centers participated in a MGH-led simulation to examine how hospitals can share clinical expertise and resources during a catastrophic disaster.

Such events, and others like it, contribute to the growing body of knowledge supporting the evolving science of emergency management and response. “In recent years, there’s been a real codification of the way we work together across the system to strengthen our preparedness,” says Paul Biddinger, MD, Chief, Division of Emergency Preparedness, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Director, Emergency Preparedness, Partners HealthCare.

Additionally, Emergency Preparedness professionals across the Partners HealthCare system contribute to regional response efforts and knowledge-sharing initiatives to demonstrate how hospitals can share clinical expertise and resources during a catastrophic disaster. Recently, Partners HealthCare experts have contributed to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) resources, peer-reviewed journals; and have developed research initiatives such as Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s “Stop the Bleed” studies examining post-trauma tourniquet use and education.

“As an organization that espouses research and teaching, we also seek not only to care for ourselves, but to contribute to the field,” notes Dr. Biddinger.

Currently, MGH is one of two U.S. sites engaged in a demonstration project, spearheaded and funded by HHS, to design a regional disaster health response system that engages stakeholders in response to catastrophic events impacting human health. The Regional Health Disaster Response System was put to the test this past August with Operation Minute’s Notice, a training exercise that brought together Massachusetts hospitals, public health officials, and EMS leaders to simulate how clinical expertise and resources could be optimally shared in the event of a hypothetical disaster.

“Even though scenarios like the one we simulated are rare, they are possible, and our healthcare system needs to be ready to respond,” concludes Dr. Biddinger. “Our top priority is that, in a truly catastrophic event where hospitals become overwhelmed, we can work together to share resources and expertise to save lives.”

For further reading and research developed by Emergency Preparedness staff across Partners, click here or here.