Aging Options

Is Your Loved One’s Nursing Home Safe? Here’s How to Evaluate Its Disaster Plan and Safety Inspection Records

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When a loved one moves into a nursing home, his or her family typically has a flood of questions and concerns on their minds. Chances are that the biggest single concern is, “Will my mom or my dad be safe?” There’s more to resident safety than maintaining an adequate number of properly-trained and certified staff: nursing homes are also required to have carefully-crafted disaster plans in place and to undergo periodic safety inspections.

As a family member, you have a right to know how safe your loved one’s new institutional home is. This recent US News article, written by reporter Ruben Castaneda, provides some valuable tips for families. Interestingly enough, the article spotlights a nursing home that is doing it right – one that happens to be situated just a few miles from AgingOptions headquarters here in the Pacific Northwest.

Record Hot Weather Put an Emergency Plan to the Test

In June 2021, the entire Pacific Northwest region experienced a series of historic heatwaves, raising the temperatures into triple digits—well over the average—and catching many locals dangerously unprepared. Fortunately, senior residential facility Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle was not among them. They had a plan, and they put it into action.

The un-air-conditioned brick three-building facility, known as “the Mount”, is a member of a regional support network of other similar facilities and hospitals that share resources during emergency situations. As part of this network, a nearby hospital loaned them a few commercial-grade air conditioning units for their common areas. The cafeteria became a hydration station and cooling center for residents and staff, and they served a cold menu so that the ovens could be left off.  The surrounding community even donated small air conditioning units and fans to the residents when a staff member put out a post on the community blog.

Remarkably, no residents were harmed by the heatwave. And it was all due to the Mount’s ability to create and implement their emergency preparedness plan well in advance.

Government Mandates an “All-Hazards Approach”

As US News points out, with climate change creating increasingly unstable and unpredictable weather patterns and triggering natural disasters worldwide, it definitely behooves loved ones to consider a residential facility’s emergency preparedness as an essential part of their decision-making.

As a baseline, any nursing home that participates in Medicare and Medicaid is required to stick to the government’s emergency preparedness guidelines. This means that facilities must have what is called an “all-hazards approach”, including natural, human, and technological events. For a point of reference, Castaneda lists equipment failures, interruptions in communication, cyber-attacks, and building collapse—whether partial or complete—as “man-made” emergencies. There should also be a plan in place for any infectious disease threats, including influenza, Ebola, or Zika virus – and, of course, COVID-19.

Aside from these guidelines, residential facilities must also follow requirements on a federal and state level. You can check how a specific residential facility stacks up against the regulatory guidelines by asking the state department in charge of nursing homes. (Castaneda notes that this would be the Department of Social and Health Services in Washington state.)

Evaluating a Nursing Home’s Plan

While most nursing homes follow the government’s guidelines as they are expected to do, it’s always a plus to find a facility that goes above and beyond to tailor those guidelines to the unique needs of their location, staff, and other considerations. As a family-member, the more collaboration you see between the facility administrator and the staff building-wide, the better.

The Mount is a great example, says US News. They set up a disaster preparedness and safety committee, consisting of a cross-section of staff from all across the facility, and they put the plan through an annual review to make sure that everything is up to date. It is a great sign to see staff from all across the nursing home, from housekeeping to food services, to nursing and training, participating and having a say in the safety of the facility. 

Also, as stated in the US News story of how the Mount handled the heatwave, they set themselves up for success long before the need arose by joining a network of health care facilities and engaging in sharing resources region-wide. This is another solid indicator of a well-prepared nursing home.

Emergency Preparedness Takes Practice

Drills are another important thing to inquire about when evaluating a care facility, says US News. “Practice makes perfect” may be a cliché, but it’s definitely something to check for in a nursing home’s preparedness plan. How often do they conduct training exercises and drills? And what range of emergencies are they training for, and are they regionally appropriate?

Castaneda’s article includes a full list of potential emergencies that facilities should prepare for, but some more common crises include disrupted supply of food or water, natural disasters (earthquakes and hurricanes, for example), snowstorms, fires, pandemics, and power outages. If you are considering a nursing home for yourself or your loved one, ask about the range of disasters the facility is prepared for, and how often they practice and update their plan for each.

Signs Families Should Look For

There are four important questions Castaneda suggests asking when investigating an emergency plan at a facility:

  • Can I see the emergency plan? Administrators should be comfortable showing you their plan. It should be thorough, specific, and unique to the facility. It should also show how often drills are conducted. As a bonus, you should be able to speak to the safety committee members to get a better idea of what is covered at their meetings.
  • What do fire inspection reports say? State and local fire departments should conduct annual inspections of a facility and highlight potential areas of concern. These fire reports are public by law, and should be accessible to you as you’re making your decisions about a nursing home. If they’re not, you can usually attain them from the nursing home’s licensor.
  • Does the facility have community partnerships with other health care facilities and first responders? As highlighted by the example of the Mount, if a facility is part of a regional network of other care providers, that is usually a positive sign that they will be mutually supported in the event of an emergency through sharing resources and even allowing safe transfers of residents in the case of evacuations.
  • In the event of an emergency, what is the communication plan to keep staff, residents, and families appropriately informed? It’s crucial to know how information will be communicated in an emergency. Most nursing homes designate a single representative to be the mouthpiece for information, so knowing that ahead of time will save a lot of headaches. There may also be special communication channels like an email list, social media, or other alerts that you can sign up for.

Preparing for the Unknown

Between the threats of climate change and even the recent pandemic, the ability of a nursing home to be prepared for an emergency has been brought closer to the forefront of public consciousness. And it really should be on the top of your list, if you’re considering nursing homes for your loved one or yourself.

The good news is that you don’t have to fly blind. A well-run facility should be able to put your mind at ease, if you ask the right questions. Don’t be afraid to pry a bit and dig into the details, and keep on asking until you come away with a sense of peace that you’re in the right place.

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(originally reported at

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