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Northern Lights Regional Health Centre evacuation swift and successful

May 12, 2016

Once at Suncor's Firebag site, staff set up a medical clinic to continue caring for patients and other evacuees.

Preparation and teamwork: the keys to making it happen

Story by Sara Warr; Photo by Monique Janes

The week began just like any other. Patients at the Northern Lights Regional Health Care Centre were attended to by their healthcare teams. Nutrition and Food Services staff prepared meals. Staff carried out their regular routines. While encroaching wildfires in the area had begun to cast a shadow – the Fort McMurray Recovery Centre and a nearby mobile home park had already been evacuated - nobody knew what was to come.

On Monday, leadership at the health centre gathered to discuss contingency plans for the hospital – just in case. They had been receiving regular updates on the blaze and wanted to be prepared for the worst. Still, everything felt fairly normal.

“We all went home at the end of the day,” recalls Monique Janes, Patient Care Director. “Then on Tuesday things started to change.”

By noon on Tuesday the blaze had escalated, threatening additional areas of the city. With more neighborhoods under mandatory evacuations, it was difficult for many to keep their minds on work.

“A lot of our nurses had internal struggles,” says Pam Lund, emergency department and ICU manager. “They had children whose schools or daycares were being evacuated and their husbands were working at the plant sites an hour away or out fighting the fire.”

“I was feeling it myself, being a mother with my kids in school,” says Janes. “I made a call to my husband – I said, ‘you’ve got to get the kids out of school. Look after them. I can’t leave the hospital. I have way too much to do.’”

An AHS zone-wide Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) had already been set up, in constant communication with the municipality’s EOC.

“We knew things were progressing,” explains David Matear, Senior Operating Director at the health centre. “We anticipated that the situation could change very quickly and we wanted to get ahead of that in our decision making.”

“The event accelerated so fast,” he adds. “Just getting the word out about the current status, as opposed to the status 10 minutes ago, was a challenge. We were given as much as information as we could be, given the situation.”

The 30 wheelchair-bound continuing care clients on the fourth floor were one of the biggest concerns. Staff decided to bring them down to the main floor and look after them there, to make sure they could make a swift and comfortable exit if necessary.

Meanwhile, the north zone EOC was working a few steps ahead of the on-the-ground staff to ensure care would continue after evacuation.

“Even though patients hadn’t been moved from the hospital yet, they were looking into how and where they would be cared for when they eventually arrived in Edmonton,” says Matear.

At about 5:00 p.m., the hospital began to evacuate, a wall of fire visible in the nearby ravine.

“We were trying to keep people calm,” explains Janes. “When we got the mandatory evacuation, we were ready. We did it floor by floor.”

Most patients began boarding buses and ambulances. One ventilated ICU patient required an air ambulance. “We called Hero and instantaneously they were on it for us,” says Lund, referring to Phoenix Heli-Flight Air Ambulance’s charitable entity.

Patients remained amazingly calm and patient during the whole ordeal.

“Not one person complained or cried,” says Lund. “There was no panic whatsoever. They trusted our staff and knew we were going to get them to where it was safe.” Physicians and staff from all departments helped wherever they could. Nutrition and food services packed up food and water for the trip and unknown destination.

“We had so many people come together,” recalls Janes. “We had our facilities maintenance staff and our protective services guys loading crash carts and equipment - everything that we could need to run an emergency department. We didn’t know where we were going or how long we’d be there and what would be available. We even got the cat from the Continuing Care Unit. The bird too.”

Lund was in one of the first ambulances to leave, along with some of the extra equipment. Other ambulances and buses followed, with Janes near the middle of the group.

“I could see the flames just across the street and up a bit and I could feel the heat,” Janes says, recalling the journey. Protective services staff stayed behind to help sweep the building several times to ensure no one was left behind.

David Matear was the last of the hospital leadership and staff to leave the site, amidst thick black smoke. In total, 73 acute care patients and 32 continuing care clients were successfully and safely evacuated in less than two hours.

Once at Suncor’s Firebag site, physicians and staff worked around the clock to ensure patients received the care they needed. From all reports, kindness and compassion abounded.

“I do want to thank my neighbours for getting my dogs out,” says Matear. “There are so many people to thank here in Edmonton and right across the province. The amount of kindness we’ve been shown has been unbelievable.”

“My son-in-law is a firefighter and he was dispatched to our neighbourhood,” recalls Lund. “He called to say that it was still standing but that he and his crew were starving – so my husband disengaged the security system and the whole crew went in and raided my pantry and fridge.” But not all were so lucky, she says. “One was one of the first nurses who went to Firebag and worked 24 hours straight, unfortunately did lose her house.”

Looking back, hospital leadership say they feel pride more than anything else.

“I’m so proud of our hospital and what we accomplished,” says Janes. “I’m so proud of everyone in our facility.”

“Our staff were fearless and selfless,” says Lund.

As with all of Fort McMurray, the evacuation of the health centre was just the beginning of a long road ahead. While the hospital and other AHS sites were not damaged by fire, it will still take time to regroup, recover and reopen.