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Nursing home disaster drill a precaution

| Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005

Three years before Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore, local Red Cross officials began work on a plan to shield this region's most vulnerable people from Mother Nature's perils.

Officials at the Southwestern Chapter of the American Red Cross believe theirs is the only chapter in the country with a disaster preparedness plan focused on nursing homes.

It is scheduled to be put to the test in a disaster drill Sept. 27, when emergency responders working with the Red Cross are to evacuate 175 residents of the Baptist Home graduated care facility in Mt. Lebanon to a nearby church shelter.

The initiative could provide a model for other responders and community officials in the wake of the deaths of 34 people at a nursing home outside New Orleans, where prosecutors have charged the owners with negligence.

Local Red Cross officials started work on the idea in 2002 using a $179,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation and meeting with officials at care facilities throughout the region to discuss and craft emergency response plans.

"This program was written in response to many senior citizens requesting more information about how to be more prepared in an emergency," said Red Cross spokeswoman Tami Aubele.

The struggles in New Orleans to cope with the life-and-death challenges of Katrina and the slow federal response to the disaster underscore the need for local officials to be prepared, said Rodger Ricciuti, Mt. Lebanon Fire Department platoon chief.

"The local resources are going to be stretched thin, and the federal resources aren't going to be there immediately," Ricciuti said. "As most people have found out, the federal help doesn't show up three hours later."

The Sept. 27 drill will start with a severe weather warning. Evacuations will begin several hours later at 10 a.m., with officials aiming to have all of the residents moved to nearby Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church within an hour.

Heightening the realism, only a limited number of emergency workers will respond, an effort to replicate a likely disaster scenario in which local resources would be spread thin.

"I truly believe that facilities need to be as much as possible self-sufficient in these disasters," said Robert Fischer, Baptist Homes facilities director.

Officials hope the drill will catch the attention of those responsible for caring for people with special needs, said Dennis Narey, Allegheny County Department of Emergency Management operations manager.

"More facilities will see what's going on and recognize, 'Maybe we can do a little bit more,' " he said.

The Red Cross has trained administrators at 150 other facilities, and local emergency coordinators will be on hand to observe, Aubele said.

In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, disaster response to aid people with special needs has emerged as a major priority of the National Organization on Disability, said Nancy Starnes, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

"We're particularly enthusiastic when we hear that the Southwestern Pennsylvania Red Cross is working on this," Starnes said. "We hope a lot of people get the idea that they should be doing exactly what the Southwestern Pennsylvania Red Cross is doing right now."

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