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What Happens When Winter Weather Whirls In

Updated December 19, 2018

Credit: iStock

Winter is here, and that means snow, sleet and freezing rain are likely ahead for those in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., region. When Old Man Winter comes calling, key stakeholders at The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine work collaboratively to make a series of complex decisions to ensure the safety of our faculty, staff, students, patients and visitors. But how are those decisions reached?

Well before the start of a storm, decision-makers are tracking the storm, comparing forecasts from reliable weather sources. The university also relies on the expertise of meteorologist and former WMAR-TV 2 weatherman Justin Berk to provide insight into the weather outlook, which is helpful for Johns Hopkins Medicine as well.

“Forecasting advice includes a wide range of resources,” says Bob Maloney, senior director of emergency management for the Johns Hopkins Health System. “In addition to using Justin’s advice and situational reports from Facilities and Security, we also look at information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Accuweather and others.”

After comparing weather sources, in the early morning hours of the day of the event — and sometimes even the day before — decision-makers are on a series of phone calls. If 6 inches of snow or a combination of any amount of snow and ice are predicted, Stephen Sisson, vice president of clinical operations with the Office of Johns Hopkins Physicians and an internal medicine physician, hosts a 4:30 a.m. call involving stakeholders, including doctors, nurses and administrators in the ambulatory practices at the hospital, as well as others.

“Generally, if the weather prediction accumulation is less than 6 inches, we feel that ambulatory practices are going to remain open,” Sisson says. “It is not enough of a safety threat to shut down practices. And part of that is obviously we deal with individuals who are quite sick, and we also deal with individuals who travel from across the world to come see us, so we typically remain open unless conditions are unsafe. A major variable with a particular storm is if there is going to be a significant ice component, which makes travel unsafe.”

Sisson adds that certain ambulatory clinical areas, such as ambulatory surgery centers, oncology clinics, dialysis centers and laboratory and radiology testing centers, are always open. Other ambulatory areas may remain open or closed as decided by ambulatory leadership, based on safety concerns for patients and staff.

All our hospitals must continue to meet patient care responsibilities during winter weather emergencies. So when it snows, hospital staff members should ensure they are prepared to come in no matter what Mother Nature brings. Maloney says everyone should take the individual responsibility to be resilient. “You want to make sure your family and your home is prepared with an emergency supply kit and emergency plan, so you don’t have to worry about anybody at home while you are at work,” he says. “And then you should determine transportation through hazardous weather. You want to arrive in advance of hazardous weather and leave after it’s over.”

When staff members at The Johns Hopkins Hospital are required to shelter in place at the hospital due to winter weather, the Office of Emergency Management ensures they have necessary items to make their stay more comfortable — including cots, blankets, showers and meal cards.

On the university side, at 5 a.m. on the day of a weather event, Jon Links, vice provost and chief risk and compliance officer in the Office of the Provost at The Johns Hopkins University, organizes a call of about 50 people to make decisions about whether or not the normal operating schedule should be altered. Discussions focus on road and campus conditions. With campuses stretching from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., different decisions are possible depending on the location. “Each decision is based on, —number one—safety,” Links says. “There is a mission that the university has. When we close, the mission suffers. And so you’re being mindful of mission as you are being attentive to safety. In a moment when we are on the fence, we tend to err on the side of safety.”

Changes in normal operations due to winter weather at the university are communicated on the university’s alert webpage and emergency phone line: 410-516-7781. Patients can call clinics directly or check MyChart, the online patient portal, to find out about adjustments in clinic operations.

Be sure to check with your individual institution for further details on policies and procedures relating to inclement weather. Policy information can be found here for Johns Hopkins Medicine and here for The Johns Hopkins University.

To learn how you can prepare your home and family for winter weather, read CEPAR’s winter storm safety tips.