Imagine a town in Northern B.C. in the middle of hot, rainless summer. In the forest beyond the town, a lightning strike ignites a fire that grows quickly, fuelled by the dry wood and brush. Soon, the wildfire is approaching the one paved road that leads into and out of the town. Everyone needs to start thinking about how and when they will evacuate, but this question is particularly daunting for the administrators of the town’s hospital and long-term care home. There are patients recovering from surgery and serious trauma, medically fragile elderly people and women who have just given birth and their newborns. How will all these people be moved to safety and where will they go? Other hospitals and care facilities in the region have their own patients and residents, how will they accommodate the evacuees?
This is a frightening scenario, but one that’s very real in British Columbia, particularly as global warming creates longer and more intense fire seasons.
“The heart of emergency management is planning,” says Jana Hargreaves, Northern Health Coordinator for PHSA’s Health Emergency Management BC (HEMBC). While the threat of disasters and emergencies can be scary, Jana and her colleagues are helping the health care system prepare for evacuations so they’re smooth and safe for everyone involved.
Jana led the creation of two guides that are designed to give health care leaders the tools they need to plan for an event like a wildfire or a flood. The Complete Facility Transfer to a Different Community The Complete Facility Transfer to a Different Community guide focuses on moving patients out of harm’s way, and the Receiving Relocated Patients from Another Facility/ Community guide aims to help facilities plan for accepting evacuees in the event of disasters and emergencies.
This year, the BC Health Care Awards recognized the Northern Health Emergency Management team with an Award of Merit for Top Innovation for these two guides, which are the first of their kind in B.C. and possibly all of Canada.
The need for these guides was first identified in the aftermath of the 2017 Cariboo wildfires, when the Cariboo Memorial Hospital in Williams Lake needed to be evacuated. Prince George and Quesnel accepted the patients from Williams Lake along with over 10,000 other people fleeing the fires, some of whom had urgent medical needs during the evacuation period. For example, twenty-three “fire babies” were born to evacuees while they were away from their home communities.
“Jim Fitzpatrick, HEMBC Director for Northern Health, says, and I quote, ‘never waste a good emergency,” says Jana. “He means that we need to learn from past emergencies and experiences and think about what we did well and how we can prepare for next time, because there’s always going to be a next time.”
Jana came to her role at HEMBC after spending over two decades working for BC Emergency Health Services, first as a paramedic then as a unit chief. Her extensive experience with the complexities of transporting ill and injured patients in B.C.’s north made her a natural fit to lead the creation of the guides.
Jana consulted on the guides with a number of organizations and stakeholders within Northern Health and other organizations including BCEHS and the BC Coroner’s Service. Anne Scott, Regional Manager, Corporate and Program Communications at Northern Health, helped edit and design the guides.
The guides are intended to give leaders at hospitals and care facilities the tools they need to plan for natural disasters well in advance, so they can move patients and residents in an orderly fashion, before it becomes absolutely necessary.
“We want to start moving people once a community goes on evacuation alert, before there’s an evacuation order in place,” says Jana. “This avoids a mad rush where everyone is trying to escape with wildfires raging all around. This should be a slow and well planned process, so the impact on patients and their families is as minimal as possible.”
The guides are meant to be evergreen documents that are updated with new information at the start of every fire and flood season. In 2020, Jana and her team added information about evacuations during a pandemic. Jana is now also working new sections for hospital chiefs of staff and health services administrators.
Emergency planning isn’t just for hospital leadership! Having a plan in place can make a huge difference to you and your family in the event of a natural disaster or other catastrophic event. Visit HEMBC’s website for more information on emergency preparedness.