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Nurses had to evacuate Masset hospital using personal vehicles

Recent tsunami warning sparks review of emergency plans for Northern Haida Gwaii Hospital

Everyone got out safely and when the tsunami waves rolled in, none was high enough to fill a gumboot.

But something big was missing when nurses evacuated the Northern Haida Gwaii Hospital for the tsunami warning on Jan. 23 — wheels.

Nurses working the overnight shift had to scramble that morning, loading frail patients into a nurse’s own car and having one patient drive.

Everyone got to the hilltop evacuation site south of Masset before 3 a.m. But medications in the hospital’s grab-and-go bags were expired and once up top, communication with other staff was poor and no one could open the hospital’s storage unit of emergency supplies.

“The report that we got was that it really wasn’t very well organized,” says Christine Sorensen, acting president of the BC Nurses’ Union, which is reviewing the evacuation.

“Nurses really shouldn’t be the ones solely relied on to evacuate a hospital under threat of natural disaster,” Sorensen said.

“Our question is, what’s really happened since the earthquake in 2012?”

Until early 2016, the Northern Haida Gwaii Hospital did have a dedicated bus for emergency evacuations.

But the bus was sold, largely because it was old and getting too costly to repair. It also had a slow-loading hydraulic lift.

“It’s quite obvious we can’t rely on staff vehicles for evacuations,” said John Short, site administrator for the Northern Haida Gwaii Hospital, noting that for one thing, staff often ride bicycles to work.

Short said the hospital will speak with safety advisors to find a new and better-suited vehicle, likely with a manual lift. He agrees there was some chaos at the evacuation site, where cell-phone reception is poor, and said it’s clear the team needs another satellite phone.

Short praised the excellent work of nurses that morning, noting that everyone got out with no injuries, and in good time.

Besides a new vehicle and better supplies, Short said the hospital will start holding two mock evacuations a year rather than one, and will better promote the drills to have more staff take part.

“Basically, it’s a learning event,” he said. “It’s not about show us what you know — it’s about let’s go play with the equipment, let’s learn what the processes are, let’s get comfortable with this.”

“Any time we have an evacuation, there is always some learning and tweaking that we need to do,” he said.

Another lesson learned on Jan. 23 was that there was confusion about how residents staying in the Nick Grosse Assisted Living building are meant to evacuate.

William Pollard lives in Skidegate now, but served with the Masset volunteer fire department for 20 years. His mother and uncle live at Nick Grosse— a one-storey home with four apartments that is right beside the hospital.

Pollard said his mother and uncle were alarmed when the tsunami siren went off and no one from the hospital came by to pick them up.

As it turned out, nurses at the hospital phoned Masset RCMP and asked them to pick up everyone from the home who needed a ride.

Pollard’s uncle also phoned police, who arrived with two vehicles, and one resident was taken to the evacuation site by a family member. Once up at the hill site, they and hospital patients sheltered in the school bus driven by the Old Massett volunteer fire department, until firefighters drove them home.

Short said calling police or family is actually the plan for everyone who lives in the Nick Grosse building — to live there, residents must be able to phone emergency services and move to the curb outside on their own.

“It’s independent living, but when these things happen it can be quite scary,” Short said. “There was some confusion, and they thought everyone forgot about them.”

“Nurses called as soon as it happened — they called police to come and get them.”

Speaking to Pollard, it seems residents didn’t know that was the plan.

“It would be nice to have the bus back,” he said.

“In a small community, you are hoping that everybody’s going to make it up to safety, especially your family members,” he said.

“For me to be an hour away and have that feeling, hoping that my mom and them are safe — it’s a pretty horrible feeling once you know they were almost left behind.”

Sorensen said the BC Nurses Union will be calling on Northern Health and others to review their emergency preparedness plans, not only for Haida Gwaii but for all coastal hospitals.

“This is a bigger provincial issue,” she said, noting that B.C. was not well prepared to manage the massive evacuation of hospitals in Williams Lake, Ashcroft, and 100 Mile House during the wildfires last summer.

Sorensen also praised the Haida Gwaii nurses for all they did on Jan. 23.

“They certainly did the very best they could to act fast and evacuate the hospital in a very timely fashion,” she said. “But what we’re asking is that there is more action at the management level, to ensure that the nurses have the equipment, the supplies, the transportation they need.”