Is Your Hospital’s Communications System Ready for the Next Big Emergency?

Emergency managers should be utilizing the communication technologies that have advanced dramatically in recent years.

Interoperability Challenges Still Exist
Everyone is in agreement that communications technology has improved exponentially over the last decade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s flawless.

“To some extent, the problem we identified 15 years ago after the 9/11 attacks [of inadequate communication between different departments] still exists,” says Rob Wright, Business Development Director for Mutualink. “Things are becoming even more complex as law enforcement moves to encrypted radios, which can really block community stakeholders from gaining a level of interoperability.”

Encryption measures are indeed becoming more common, but anyone pessimistic about the future of emergency communications is misguided. The proliferation of IP solutions has made direct contact between disparate organizations more simple than ever.

“There are a vast number of solutions out there, from low tech to high tech, with varying costs of implementation,” Warren says. “I would look for something that offers a high order of scalability with the ability to use multiple platforms.”

Mutualink is one company that creates networks of interoperable communities by taking different institutions’ existing communications infrastructure and putting it onto an IP network.

“It allows emergency commanders to, among other things, create incident channels. So if there are multiple teams responding to something, they can be added to the channel in an instant and communicate seamlessly,” Wright says.

Martino guided Northwell Health’s adoption of Mutualink’s Interoperable Response and Preparedness Platform in 2014. The service allows 15 of Northwell’s hospital campuses to share voice, video, data and text communication both within the health system and with local first responders.

Martino believes the system has been an indispensable resource for Northwell because, unfortunately, it’s had no shortage of emergency situations.

Learn to Leverage the Cloud
Another benefit of networked systems is that they can eliminate the physical infrastructure that can be compromised during certain emergency situations like fires or severe weather.

Carolinas Healthcare System’s Bryan Warren also notes that situations like civil disturbances and active shooters can make certain equipment inaccessible. Martino has begun the process of pushing his system to the cloud in order to stay prepared for any situation.

“The idea of us moving things to the cloud is to give the system mobility,” he says. “So if we lose the emergency operations center because of a natural disaster or some other event, we’re okay and we can recover everything.”

Being able to tap into your system anywhere means you’re not forced to manage emergencies in any one place.

“Our corporate security and emergency management teams has handled all types of emergencies,” says Martino, who’s coordinated Northwell emergency communications in hurricanes, fires and blizzards. “We use a lot of different communications systems within Mutualink, and on top of emergencies, we also do building escorts, executive protection, terminations and investigations.”

Balance Info Sharing with HIPAA Compliance
Once you’ve become familiar with emergency communications systems and staked out a spot in the budget for an upgrade, it’s important to make the most out of your investment.

Hospital communications channels must be compatible with local departments including police, fire and nearby emergency medical services (EMS agencies). At the same time, privacy regulations don’t allow a constant stream of information to flow indiscriminately from hospitals to their associates, making it necessary for managers to hold a proverbial valve they can turn off and on as emergencies evolve. That’s where the network comes in handy.

“We allow hospitals to maintain their sovereignty by letting them hold on to their [communications] infrastructure,” Wright says of Mutualink. “When they need to share information they can, but hospitals can’t just give unbridled access to their camera or radio systems.”

About the Author

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Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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