Hard work didn't keep people from having a little fun, too
It was the event of the decade — snow event, that is — thanks to a weather phenomenon called a bomb cyclone that hit Jan. 3. Charlestonians watched as near-record amounts of powdery flakes accumulated atop a layer of thick ice, making roads nearly impassable and getting a pizza delivered virtually impossible. In all, the anomalous storm dropped as much as 6.5 inches of snow throughout the Tri-county area, bringing commerce and travel practically to a halt.
On Wednesday and Thursday, some roads and bridges were inaccessible, and schools and the Charleston International Airport remained closed for days, as temperatures dipped as low as 16 degrees overnight, refreezing ice and making travel dangerous. Yet during that entire time, MUSC remained at the ready. And while elective surgeries, outpatient clinics and classes were canceled to ensure the safety of patients, students and staff, MUSC’s hospitals were in emergency operations mode.
During times that require an elevated level of emergency preparedness, MUSC Health Chief Operating Officer Matt Wain dons a second hat — serving as MUSC’s incident commander. And during the winter storm known as Grayson, Wain was on campus for 59 straight hours, overseeing the emergency response for the hospital, Command Center efforts and operations.
Planning for appropriate staffing to meet patient and staff needs, as well as securing facilities and grounds during an emergency event, is a critical piece of the preparation strategy.
MUSC essential personnel are organized into two response units: Team A and Team B. In times of a foreseen weather event, such as an ice and snow storm or hurricane, Team A reports just ahead of the storm and stays until it’s safe for Team B to relieve team members after the emergency has passed. During Grayson, Team A reported for duty Wednesday morning and was relieved at various times throughout Friday through a customizable, staggered approach for hospital care teams, as the weather crisis wound down and major thoroughfares became navigable.
Wain said Team A remained in high gear the entire time. He had the highest praise for their dedication, as patients were well cared for, and buildings and grounds were kept safe and functional.
“The teams across the enterprise did a phenomenal job. I was very proud of their efforts. It was clear that people rose to the occasion, regardless of the harsh winter weather. The impact they all made, both Team A and Team B, was exceptional.”
And while most took turns grabbing some sleep and meals during their scheduled down time, some also took a moment to brave the cold and enjoy the campus winter wonderland. Whether they were building snow people, throwing snowballs or catching snowflakes on their tongues, team members had a lot of fun despite the freezing temperatures and treacherous ice.
Wain had an opportunity on Wednesday afternoon to get outside and personally check out the frivolity. What he saw made such a lasting impression; he smiles as he recalls people’s reactions to the snow.
“It was nothing short of fantastic,” he said. “Some people had never seen snow in their lives, and for others, it had been a very long time. The sheer joy and wonder on their faces was just extraordinary.”
Even some patients were able to join in the merriment. E.J. Wright, a children’s hospital patient on the heart transplant waiting list, was given the OK to play outside in the snow with his mother, Jazmin Walker, and nurses Lindsay Charpia and Hillary Pierce. Three-year-old E.J. was bundled head to toe in his navy pea coat, green toboggan, bright blue gloves and warm chukka boots. But the most adorable accessory the bespectacled little guy wore was an expression of sheer delight as he frolicked in the snow, making snow angels with his mom. The worry she felt for her little one seemed to melt away, unlike the frosty blanket of snow on which they played.
Over the three days Team A was on campus, many captured fun photos of themselves and team members playing in the fluffy snow and shared them on Facebook, so their families and friends could see they, too, were enjoying the snow. Others shared photos on Yammer or participated in a game called Snow-isms, where the Command Center invited staff to send in their favorite saying with a snow substitution. Snow my gosh!
After revamping the crisis alert system after Hurricane Irma last fall, it was clear that well-timed and unified enterprisewide communication was a high priority. That was no accident. On hand in the Command Center were MUSC’s finest communication specialists, Wain said.
“Between Bryan Wood, Heather Woolwine, Joy Farrae and Heather Easterling, all of whom were in the Command Center, we were in the best hands the entire time. Communication during this event was excellent.”
Wood, emergency management coordinator for the Department of Public Safety, oversees that effort for the university, which includes the Rave Alert System. The deployment of the system’s timely communiques allowed for the consistent dissemination of information, which kept the internal and external worlds of MUSC apprised of storm-related and operational developments and precisely how MUSC planned to deal with specific circumstances.
Wood suggested that people add a secondary email address to preferences in their MUSC Alert accounts, so that even if they aren’t able to access their MUSC email, their personal accounts will serve as a backup.
The adjustments made to the crisis alert system after previous storms proved successful. The feedback the team received as a result of the coordinated communication efforts during this winter storm has been extremely positive, Wood said.
“We took a major step forward with this event. We fine-tuned our processes, and that allowed us to provide excellent communications across the spectrum. Proper crisis communication is critical at a time like this, when, for instance, we know we are going to face a significant weather event that will impact the enterprise, but it then develops into an anomalous polar vortex event. Our goal is to get better and even better still.”
“We took the feedback we received from hurricanes Matthew and Irma and assessed and improved our tactics,” she said. “We recognize that overwhelmingly people prefer to be apprised of information that could potentially affect them. This response was a great example of best practices converging with an actual exigent situation.”
She was also quick to give praise where it was due. In addition to the stellar patient care that was delivered during the snow storm, she said, the teams from Environmental Services, Facilities, Grounds and Dining Services were rock stars.
“They literally kept this place going and were so willing to go above and beyond to positively impact whatever environment they were working in. It’s a privilege to watch the MUSC team come together as one solid unit and in such positive and healthy ways during an emergency.”
By Wednesday evening, Jan. 3, the South Carolina Department of Transportation’s salt and sand trucks were tackling roads around MUSC. In fact, while Charleston’s airport and Air Force base had planes sitting idle and runways covered with ice, two truckloads of salt already had been spread around the MUSC campus.
Robin Smith, Grounds Department supervisor, called it a wild few days. Her team was responsible for keeping the emergency areas accessible; clearing paths from parking lots to buildings; and salting parking lots, crosswalks and some of the smaller roads while braving frigid temperatures. On Monday morning, nearly 200 people couldn’t find parking spots, she said, so her people used tractors and backhoes to push snow off the tops of the parking garages. In order to accomplish those types of herculean tasks, members of her staff were on campus 24/7 from Tuesday through Monday, Jan. 8.
She was proud of their efforts. “Truthfully, we did great, especially for the circumstances. We were planning for 2 inches and we got between 4 and 6, so we thought it would be easier than it was. It was nearly a whole week of closure and cleaning, and the entire time, we were preparing for everyone to come back to campus. We’re exhausted, but it worked out well. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have been sunny and 60 degrees on Saturday," she said, laughing.
Luckily, the institution never lost power or had to use emergency generators, said Lisa Montgomery, executive vice president for finance and operation. In fact, thanks to the team of 11 who work for University Maintenance and Hospital Maintenance, which are housed together in one shop, people and buildings were toasty and things ran smoothly and efficiently. All 11 were on Team A and here for the duration.
Clifford Gibbs, assistant supervisor for University Maintenance, said things went very well during the storm. They were worried, he said, that fuel trucks wouldn’t be able to deliver fuel, but in the end, they had enough fuel for the 17 boilers that are housed in seven different buildings.
Rick Burt, assistant supervisor for Hospital Maintenance, said the boilers are critical for day-to-day operations. “They provide steam and heat for many uses, he said, including heating patient rooms, sterilization for the kitchen and humidification and heat in the operating rooms.”
Montgomery, who serves during emergencies as the link between university senior leadership and the incident command center, saluted the efforts of Teams A and B. “Without exception, the teams on campus during the winter storm dedicated themselves to excellence, and they accomplished just that. They tended meticulously to everything necessary for the university and hospitals to operate efficiently and smoothly during the storm. MUSC is a family, one that can be counted on to go the extra mile. For that, we are grateful.”
Food service was also critical, both for patients and for staff essentially living at the hospitals. Team A members working during the storm were provided vouchers for all three meals each day, and just shy of 20,000 meals were served to employees from Wednesday to Saturday at the main hospital and Ashley River Tower cafeterias.
For Brad Mastellar, general manager of food and nutrition at ART, it was no surprise that hamburgers and French fries would be the big sellers — especially when people are cooped up, and it’s 20 degrees outside. “Most of the time people choose the healthier selections, especially for breakfast and lunch, but at night, the grill is the most popular. It makes sense during a storm situation like this, people want comfort food.”
Burgers and fries weren’t the only thing that kept spirits high and made time away from home more bearable. Auditoriums and amphitheaters around campus became movie theaters, showing films like “Captain America-Civil War,” “Talladega Nights,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” almost around the clock.
Woolwine summed up her take on the winter storm experience. “For me, the psychology of this experience was much different than the hurricanes, in that we could see photos on Facebook of our families out playing in the snow and knew everyone was OK and having fun. We could get out and enjoy the snow ourselves while on a break. We weren’t thinking about evacuating patients or worried that our homes were being destroyed. There’s a certain camaraderie that happens when you are involved in events like this; it brought out the best in people, and it’s really just that simple.”