Hennepin County Medical Center Case Study: Quickly Reacting During a Tragedy

By Laura Alt LaLuzerne, with Michelle Jacobson

Wednesday, August 1, 2007, started out as a typical day at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At just after 6:00 p.m. that day, tragedy struck. During the evening rush hour, the Interstate 35W Bridge collapsed.

Fast Reaction: Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) is a Level I Adult and Pediatric Trauma Center. As a Level I Trauma Center, many of the patients in serious condition from the bridge collapse were immediately transported to HCMC. According to Telecom Supervisor Michelle Jacobson, “The Hennepin Medical Resource Control Center (MRCC) started getting 911 calls within minutes of the collapse. Twenty-five patients were transported to HCMC that evening, with an additional four admitted the following day.”

A bystander at the scene was the first person to contact the HCMC call center about the bridge collapse. This gave the call center advance notice about what was about to unfold at HCMC. Operators at HCMC contacted Michelle, who arrived at the call center just after 7:00 p.m.

Activating an Alert: Using their 1Call Infinity system to handle the calls in and out of the HCMC call center, an internal emergency response was initiated at around 7:00 p.m. “I have built a large paging group of about 200 people into system,” Michelle stated. “We initiated an automated mass group page to say that we had called an Alert Orange and were activating HEICS, the Hospital Emergency Incident Command System, to respond to the event.”

According to Michelle, “We staffed up the call center right away and called in another operator. By 7:30, we were inundated with all kinds of calls. The media was reporting that anyone with medical training should report to HCMC. We had our own staff calling in, and we were mobilizing them.  Plus, because of the media report, we were getting many additional calls. People called wanting to know how they could help, and others called looking for family members. I think the vast majority of patients presented without identification, and patients were being taken to multiple hospitals, so it was, as you can imagine, a rather difficult thing trying to determine who went where.”

Efficiently Handling the Increased Call Volume: On the two previous Wednesday evenings, the HCMC call center took an average of 290 calls between 6 and 11 p.m. On August 1, 2007, between the hours of 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. (the same five-hour time span), HCMC took 1,984 calls, more than six times their usual call volume.

“We felt this was a good test of the system capacity and performance. I was assigned the role of communication unit leader in the HEICS structure for this event. We decided not to make any changes to the way calls were handled because it was working appropriately. We certainly could have intervened and off-loaded calls or put an up-front message on if we had felt that we couldn’t manage the call volume,” stated Michelle.

“I think it helped that my evening supervisor was here, and I was able to come in quickly,” she added. “We were able to make decisions and set guidelines for staff as things transpired throughout the evening.”

Keeping the Call Center Calm: Michelle said, “From a technical standpoint, I know we really appreciated having the ‘perfect answer’ prerecorded greetings set-up for the operators. Not only did it save their voices, but it reduced the noise in the room – thereby reducing tension. Also, with the auto answer, people were very patient about waiting, even when the wait time was considerable. I’m certain that listening to constant ringing would have been much less acceptable to callers. When the callers are calm, it is much less stressful for the operators.”

“The operators were handling things very well, “she continued. “Certainly, the fact that things are queued and orderly and the fact that we have wait messages helped tremendously.”

Preparing for Disasters: Everyone hopes these procedures are never tested; however, it is proper to plan and practice should the need arise. Michelle said, “The hospital conducts or participates in at least two large drills (mass casualty events) each year as required by Joint Commission. In addition, we utilize our emergency response plan many times a year to respond to real events – both internal and external. The familiarization with emergency procedures that one gains in practice and smaller events serves us well in an event of this magnitude. Things go much more smoothly when people are prepared to respond and don’t have to create plans on the fly.”

Future Plans: Because of what they’ve learned from this event, HCMC is looking into the Red Alert Emergency and Event Notification system. With it, all types and all sizes of notifications will be much easier to trigger, monitor, and track.

Summary: The bridge collapse was a tragic situation.  “All kinds of things that could have happened as secondary complications didn’t happen, so we were very fortunate,” concluded Michelle. “We drill for this type of situation, and our drilling and work has definitely paid off. I was pleased with the way things worked. Other than the huge volume of calls, from the front-staff perspective, it was just one call at a time, and you just keep moving. It certainly tested the system as far as capacity and flow, and I was very happy with the results.”

She sums it up best, “Of course the bottom line is – I am very fortunate to have great people working with me!”

Laura Alt LaLuzerne has worked in the telecommunications industry since 1987. She has also worked as a training specialist traveling throughout the US and Canada, a documentation writer, and is currently the 1Call marketing coordinator. You can reach Laura at 800-356-9148 or laura@amtelco.com.

Michelle Jacobson, who was interviewed for this article, started at HCMC as an operator in 1989, and became the Telecom supervisor in 2000. In 2005, Michelle headed the project team to purchase the 1Call Infinity system. Michelle has been a member of the emergency preparedness committee and was the committee chair at the time of the bridge collapse. She feels that their work in drills and disaster preparation certainly impacted their ability to respond quickly and appropriately in this real event.

[From the February/March 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]