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Published in CenterView on March 12, 2012

National Weather Service tags Medical Center 'StormReady Community'

By Bruce Coleman

One need look no further than the Joplin, Mo. tornado of 2011 to understand the importance of a robust inclement weather warning system at a health-care institution.

St. John's Regional Medical Center staff at work on that fateful Sunday afternoon last May 22 responded to an "Execute Condition Gray" announcement just minutes before a catastrophic EF5 multiple-vortex tornado roared through the community hospital's campus. Mother Nature's wrath effectively reduced a nine-story building of 367 licensed beds to a three-tent field hospital of 60 beds in mere minutes.

But thanks in part to an effective early weather warning system, St. John's patients were largely spared, medical staff were able to receive tornado victims in the hospital's Level II Trauma facility and the death toll from the nation's deadliest single tornado in more than 50 years was greatly minimized.

Given the context, it is no small matter that the National Weather Service has bestowed its StormReady Community designation to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the first health-care institution in the state - and one of only two in the Southeast - to receive the classification.

"The university personnel and students should take great pride and comfort in having achieved this status," said Alan E. Gerard, meteorologist-in-charge for the NWS in Jackson, when he informed UMMC of the designation. "This success is clearly a result of your vision, leadership, hard work and commitment to the university."

A program started in 1999 in Tulsa, Okla., StormReady helps provide the communication and safety skills communities need to save lives and property before and during weather-related events. According to the NWS, StormReady communities are better prepared to save lives from the onslaught of severe weather through advanced planning, education and awareness.

According to Jonathan Wilson, clinical director of emergency services, the NWS considered a number of factors before naming the Medical Center a StormReady Community: the 24-hour-a-day availability of Mississippi MedCom, the state-of-the-art communications center tucked behind the Adult Emergency Department; UMMC's contract with Schoolcast, a robust messaging system that can provide near-instantaneous communication over a variety of devices; and the Medical Center's in-house high-tech weather radar systems contributed to the achievement.

"This designation recognizes the efforts this institution has taken to prepare and protect its employees, students, patients and visitors on campus," Wilson said. "It just shows what work we've done to prepare for any type of weather event and hopefully mitigate the impact of the event." 

To receive the designation, Wilson said emergency services staff took storm-spotter and preparedness classes at the NWS in Jackson. He said the Medical Center's advanced weather tracking technology and the institution's campus-wide warning distribution system drew rave reviews from the NWS as well.

"We have to have certain types of warning and camera equipment so we can receive weather alerts and distribute them throughout the campus 24/7," Wilson said. "This designation means the institution has a plan for when severe weather threatens and that plan includes a way to warn the campus so they can take appropriate steps to prepare for weather impact.

"It should give folks on campus peace of mind that we have a way of protecting them should we have a severe weather threat."