You owe it to your employees and clients to have a plan for emergencies

By VHMA Admin posted 04-08-2022 16:38

Emergency Response Plan Image

If we’ve learned one lesson over the past year, it is that there is no such thing as being too prepared. When the pandemic hit, many practices scrambled to adjust their operations while keeping staff, patients, and clients safe. Although regulatory and government agencies can promulgate rules and regulations and issue directives during emergencies, businesses that rely on outside agencies to dictate their response can end up struggling to bring the business and employees up to speed. Companies that are proactive about planning for emergencies---from severe weather to civil unrest---are positioned to respond quickly and effectively.

You can’t choose your emergency

Emergencies can arise suddenly and without warning, allowing minimal time to react. Weather forecasting at best is an inexact science, and a rain, snow, or ice storm’s trajectory may not be confirmed until shortly before it hits. Anyone familiar with the Atlanta ice storm of 2014 that crippled metro Atlanta for a week and shut down interstates and highways will probably agree that it makes sense to plan for the unexpected.

Protests seeking social justice are often well-planned events, but unless you’re part of the group protesting or following them on social media, you may not be aware it’s happening until the driving route to your clinic or hospital is blocked off.  Roads were closed in cities across the country during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. 

Roads can also be made impassible by a large traffic accident. An industrial accident or act of terrorism can paralyze large portions of a city.

While the list of possible emergency situations is extensive, the list of probable ones is much more manageable.

Practice managers Nicole Matthis, CVPM, who works in Nebraska, and Missy Filarecki, who works in Upstate New York, advise developing very detailed plans for situations that a practice commonly confronts.  Less common emergencies may best be covered under a more generic policy.

Nebraska contends with both tornadoes and snow, and Matthis’ practice is prepared for either, although the snow emergency policy is the most specific and comprehensive.

Filarecki’s upstate New York practice commonly contends with snowy and cold winters, so it has adopted a comprehensive winter weather policy, as well as policies that are more general and applicable to other emergencies.

One of the most important reasons for adopting emergency policies, according to Mathis, is to ensure employee safety. During a snow emergency, for example, staff should not have to guess what is expected of them. A carefully fleshed-out policy also minimizes claims of unfair treatment because all employees are subjected to the same guidelines.

Factors to consider when creating a policy

Filarecki and Mathis suggest that managers consider the following steps when drafting emergency policies:

  1. The most common emergencies are weather-related with specific hazards – ice storms, hurricanes, snow, extreme heat -  based on region. Identify what constitutes a weather emergency. Usually, inclement weather is defined as one that causes a disruption to business, transportation, and schools.
  2. Consider whether other situations are common enough or would have such a huge impact that they merit a specific, detailed policy.
  3. Develop a more general emergency policy that can be used to guide response to rarer or unforeseen emergencies.
  4. Consult with a human resources attorney and other managers in the area and identify legal requirements and regulations that may impact the policy or policies.
  5. Determine who in the practice is responsible for deciding when the practice is closed or will open late or close early. Filarecki’s policy names the practice manager and front desk manager as the responsible parties.
  6. Many veterinary practices and hospitals do not have the luxury of completely shutting down. Specific operations and responsibilities must be handled---albeit with limited staff---during an emergency event. Be clear about which staff positions are essential and nonessential and plan to make provisions for coverage.
  7. Include a communication plan that guides communication with staff and clients during emergencies. Staff must be aware of how the information will be transmitted during an emergency. Typically, website postings, phone trees, email, and texts are used. Note that many weather events involve power disruptions that make it difficult to connect with staff. When a weather forecast is particularly ominous, it is prudent to make the call before the event materializes.
  8. Consider establishing protocols for working remotely. If it is feasible and necessary for some staff to work from home during the event, then clarify the positions that qualify so that there are no questions about who is eligible. 
  9. The policy should address whether employees will be paid during a state of emergency and which, if any, employees are essential and should report to the office. Employee safety is a top priority and should guide the policy’s development. Filarecki reports that staff is paid for a full day if the office closes early. Although employees are not compensated when the office is closed, they are allowed to work from home and submit their hours electronically.  
  10. Be open to feedback and comments from employees.

Make it official

Once the policy has been hashed out, it should be officially adopted and incorporated into the employee handbook. Although new employees are required to review the handbook, most practices routinely review sections during staff meetings throughout the year so that employees clearly understand and are reminded of the protocols.

As with any policy, it should be revisited and reviewed after it has been operational to determine its relevance and effectiveness. Ask whether it accomplishes what it was intended to accomplish, is the team comfortable with it, and have conditions changed that require an adjustment. If possible, organizing mock emergencies will offer insights into how the policy functions. When tested, it should allow for a quick and efficient response. If the policy isn’t nimble, it won’t be effective.

The importance of having a policy

Although weather and other emergencies can be unpredictable, a practice’s response to them should not be. A well-planned approach will ensure that all stakeholders understand the policy and follow it. A policy prevents individuals from making bad decisions during a weather emergency. A policy will help keep employees safe and ensure that the practice is prepared to offer necessary services during any emergency.

Check out the AVMA website for disaster preparedness resources.

Posted on behalf of the Ethics Committee.