Career Opportunities in
Healthcare Safety and Disaster Preparedness

By Christina Thielst, FACHE
Health administration career opportunities include those related to ensuring a safe and secure environment.  Within this area of health administration is safety management and disaster planning and preparedness.  Entry level positions in smaller organizations can help early careerists develop their skills and prepare for roles with additional responsibilities.

Learn more about our healthcare degreesIn addition to planning activities, these positions are also responsible for coordinating disaster and emergency exercises (drills) and responding to real-life events.  As a result, they require individuals who can think critically, plan strategically and manage projects that include many stakeholders.  They also require individuals who are leaders, with a temperament that allows them to remain calm in a crisis and respond thoughtfully.

Entry level positions may require an associate degree or even a bachelor’s degree.  Positions in larger organizations will sometimes require a master’s degree and several years of experience.  Those already employed in healthcare organizations may want to start building their experience by volunteering to join the Safety Committee or Disaster Planning Workgroup.

The safety officer/manager oversees the safety and security of the environment of care.  Responsibilities include developing and implementing plans, creating strategies to address unsafe situations and providing staff training and education.  This position is also the chair of the Safety or Environment of Care Committee and maintains documentation of meetings and other activities.  Safety topics typically reported on and covered during these committee meetings include infection control, security, facilities, housekeeping, communications, patient safety, risk management and employee health.  The committee also monitors reports of errors, mistakes, accidents, failures, near misses or other incidents. They look for trends and opportunities for improvement in performance.  In many facilities this position reports directly to the CEO or COO because the role is so important to keeping staff, employees, visitors and patients safe.

These positions are also responsible for coordinating disaster and emergency exercises (drills) and responding to real-life events. As a result, they require individuals who can think critically, plan strategically and manage projects that include many stakeholders.

Medium to large size facilities usually have a separate disaster manager or coordinator.  In smaller facilities this responsibility is often assigned to someone in the Emergency Department.  This disaster preparedness role is responsible for and guided by the Emergency Operations Plan.  The plan starts with an analysis and prioritization of local and regional hazards and vulnerabilities and then lays out plans for responses based upon the facility’s assets, strengths, weaknesses and community resources.  Prioritized scenarios that drive the planning can include earthquakes along the Pacific states, hurricanes in the South, tornadoes in the Plain states and snow storms in the Mid-West and East.

Hospitals and some other health facilities have adopted the National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) objectives and the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) to help guide their preparedness and response efforts.  This ensures a consistency of language and approaches across the nation and helps eliminate barriers when mutual support is required.  Compliance also helps hospitals and other healthcare organizations ensure they will be able to participate in disaster relief programs if an emergency is formally declared.

For both the safety manager and disaster planning manager, job functions and tasks can include:

  • Preparing meeting documentation and maintaining minutes
  • Reviewing data and information collected to identify potential risks, opportunities for improvement and priorities
  • Facilitating, scheduling and documenting staff education, training and exercises to test knowledge and skills
  • Ensuring compliance with accrediting standards and licensure and other regulatory requirements
  • Serving as the subject matter expert and an advisor to leadership, staff and the hospital command center
  • Serving as a point of contact for first responder and other community agencies, such as, fire, public health, utilities, law enforcement, coroner, etc.
  • Managing the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and other grant responsibilities and funds
  • Ensuring relevant policies and systems are in place for maintaining communications, resources, utilities, staffing, safety and security during emergencies and disasters
  • Planning for the possibility of a partial or full evacuation of the facility or surges of patients necessitating the conversion of non-patient care space to patient care space
  • Overseeing business continuity planning to identify essential functions/systems and back-up planning to ensure smooth recovery processes and the timely return to normal operations
  • Testing responses to emergency scenarios, such as fires, active shooters, abductions, disruptions of utilities, surges of patients,  external disasters or other events
  • Preparing After-Action Reports (AAR) that highlight what worked well, lessons learned and opportunities for improvement and sharing these with leadership for the development of corrective action
  • Working with departments across the organization to prepare for the management of resources and assets during a disaster or surge, including replenishment of fuel, food/water, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies/equipment, linen and personal protective equipment
  • Coordinating memorandums of understanding and/or agreements with other hospitals, vendors or public health entities for more coordinated responses
  • Organizing and managing inventories of equipment, supplies, caches and stockpiles

These positions offer organizational visibility and can be especially attractive to those already in administrative or clinical positions who want to take on a more leadership role or increase their interaction with executives.

Christina Thielst has experienced the evolution of the healthcare system over the last 30 years as both a hospital administrator and consultant. She received a bachelor’s degree in social science/management from Louisiana State University and a Master’s of Health Administration from Tulane University, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and is a Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives.