Business , Columns

Prepare for the unexpected

Knowing how to react when an emergency or natural disaster strikes will help safeguard lives and your hospital.

Prepare for the unexpected

Natural disasters and other perils often strike quickly and with little or no notice. Therefore, a well-planned and communicated emergency action plan is vital to protecting a veterinary practice’s employees, clients, patients and property.

Any emergency action plan is only as good as the people who implement it. Proper training and appropriate, highly visible signage are critical to a plan’s successful execution.

One of the common requests received in my office involves creating or updating a veterinary hospital’s emergency action plan. Every plan will be different because of a particular clinic’s location, size, layout and regional threats — earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, for example. Nonetheless, the same core principals exist for everyone.

To that end, let’s go over some basic recommendations for developing, updating and executing your hospital’s emergency action plan.


Keep a list of emergency contacts. These include:

  • Governmental emergency management offices.
  • Law enforcement agencies.
  • Local hospitals.
  • Local utilities.
  • American Red Cross chapter.
  • Your property insurance agent.


Develop an evacuation, relocation and transportation strategy for hospitalized animals. Preferably, have a reciprocal agreement with two or three other hospitals so that the partner clinics will take in another practice’s hospitalized animals in case of an emergency.


Have on hand:

  • Flashlights and spare batteries.
  • Battery-powered radio.
  • Access to fresh bottled water.
  • An alternate electrical source, such as a generator.


Place in a conspicuous location:

  • A hospital floor plan that clearly shows exits, utility shutoffs and any other special features, such as a safe room.
  • A list of fire hazards, such as a kitchen, boiler room, chemical storage area or laboratory. This information will help prevent anyone not familiar with the building — think clients and emergency personnel — from moving toward an area that could feed a fire or pose an explosion risk.


Be sure to:

  • Review the evacuation plan with all new hires.
  • Routinely review the evacuation plan with all employees.
  • Update the plan as necessary.


The management team should:

  • Call 911.
  • Signal employees and clients to leave through the nearest exit upon hearing a fire alarm or seeing smoke or flames.
  • Ensure that all employees have evacuated. You may need to doublecheck restrooms and other contiguous areas.
  • Assist any disabled people.
  • Close, but do not lock, inside and outside doors upon evacuation, if possible.
  • Assemble at a predesignated location outside the building and account for all employees and clients.
  • Report any missing people to emergency personnel.
  • Permit building re-entry only when authorized by fire officials or when management has determined that no emergency exists.


The standard recommendation is to evacuate the building immediately and leave all animals behind. This is a difficult concept for any veterinary team to accept. Opening doors to cages and runs while exiting the building is another option. Granted, closing interior and exterior doors to prevent a fire’s spread might be of little benefit to a trapped animal.


If you are indoors:

  • Drop to the floor, take cover under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture, and hold on until the shaking stops. If you are in an open room, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in a corner.
  • Stay away from glass, windows, walls and anything that could fall, such as a lighting fixture or bookcase.
  • Use a doorway for shelter only if it is near you and if you know it is strongly supported and load-bearing.
  • Stay inside until the shaking stops and you determine that going outside is a safe option. Research has shown that most earthquake injuries occur when people inside a building attempt to move to a different room or try to escape.
  • Be aware that the electricity might go out or the sprinkler system or fire alarms might activate.
  • Do not use any elevators.

If you are outdoors:

  • Stay there.
  • Move away from buildings, streetlights and utility lines.
  • Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops. The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls. Many of the 120 people killed in a 1933 earthquake in Long Beach, California, were struck by falling debris when they ran outside. Ground movement is seldom the direct cause of death or injury.

If you are trapped under debris:

  • Do not light a match.
  • Do not move about or kick up dust.
  • Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing.
  • Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can locate you. Shout only as a last resort. Shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amounts of dust.


Move to an underground shelter, basement or safe room. If none is available, a small, windowless interior room or hallway on the lowest level of a sturdy building is the safest alternative spot.



  • Back up computer data.
  • Fill fuel tanks supplying emergency generators.
  • Raise critical medical and computer equipment off
  • the floor.
  • Remove loose items from the roof and secure equipment doors and covers. Make repairs to coverings and flashing as time allows.
  • Confirm that roof drains, storm drains and catch basins are clear of trash and other obstructions.
  • Confirm that sump or dewatering pumps are operable.
  • Remove loose outdoor equipment.
  • Turn off the water supply and non-essential electrical systems.

The Aftermath

The management team should:

  • Provide first aid when appropriate.
  • Do not move seriously injured people unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Call for help.
  • Check for gas leaks. If you smell gas or hear hissing, open a window and quickly leave the building. Turn off the gas at the outside valve if you can and call the gas company.
  • Look for electrical system damage. If you see sparks or broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. Do not step in water to get to the shutoffs.
  • Check for damage to sewage lines and water lines. If you suspect a sewage break, don’t use the toilet and call a plumber. If a water pipe is damaged, stop the flow until repairs can be made.

Other staff members should:

  • Open cabinets cautiously. Beware of objects that can fall off shelves.
  • Stay away from damaged areas.
  • Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches and flammable liquids if you can do so safely. Leave the area if you smell natural gas or fumes from other chemicals.

The overriding lesson: Be proactive. Immediately before or after an emergency is not the time to develop and implement an emergency action plan for your business.

Protect & Defend columnist Dr. Ed Branam is veterinary and animal services program manager for Safehold Special Risk Inc., a division of USI Insurance. He serves on the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Legislative Advisory Committee. Protection Status