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Disaster? Think Mobile.

February 8, 2011
by Bobbie Byrne, M.D.
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Command centers cannot be locations in our hospital but need to be virtual

Chicago had the third largest single snowfall in recorded history this week. Twenty inches of snow, which blew sideways and sometimes upside down, was measured at O’Hare Airport. More than 100 cars were stranded on Lake Shore Drive. It was something to see, at least from the safety of a warm room looking out a window.

And at the hospital, there were few issues.

Power stayed on. Data center hummed. Internet was uninterrupted. There was easy cable and wireless access. Cell phone service was clear. Staff was outstanding, staying overtime, and pulling double shifts without complaint.

So, where is the story?

Mobility.

Like every other hospital, we have disaster drills. We have plans. We have competencies to be tested against. But then this disaster hit and the one thing happened that we did not have a great plan for—a mobile command center.

Our standard command center is set up in the basement, in a technology training room. It was selected because of the safety in the basement, large room size, and the ready access to many computers and phones. Even the chairs are pretty comfy.

As the snow flakes started falling, our operations teams first started managing out of their offices. And when the wind whipped up and the command center was opened, nobody really wanted to grab their stuff and trek down to the basement. The command center became the administrative conference room with its super comfy chairs and a big screen TV. (hmm…maybe a good place for the Super Bowl?) It was convenient to the executive staff offices, where many would be sleeping on air mattresses. It was familiar territory for making decisions since it is the site of our weekly executive meeting.

The telephony team sprang into action, making as many changes as possible to switch things around. There was a lot of use of personal cell phones and texting—easy since these services remained intact—but not a great strategy when disaster planning.

So in our debrief, we had an “ah-ha moment.” Command centers cannot be locations in our hospital but need to be virtual. Our plans now revolve around soft phones (VOIP on computers), as well as mobile red-handles where possible. We will build in as much redundancy as we can, but also add more flexibility.

Not sure why this came as a surprise to us. The rest of the world is there. It’s mobility, stupid. Even in a good old-fashioned Chicago snowstorm.

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Bobbie Byrne

Vice President for Health Information Technology at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill

Bobbie Byrne M.D. writes about being a community hospital CIO all the while trying to figure out...