Meeting the challenge of evacuation

The relocation of residents during the bushfire crisis has provided us with experiences which can immediately benefit other providers, writes Liz Roberts.

The relocation of residents during the bushfire crisis has provided us with experiences which can immediately benefit other providers, writes Liz Roberts.

For more than 75 years Buckland Aged Care Services has been a part of the Blue Mountains community, and as such we understand that living in this area of New South Wales comes with the threat of bushfires.

The fire which swept through Springwood on 17 October destroyed 192 homes and damaged a further 109. This fire was one of three large blazes which impacted on the Blue Mountains, and would collectively destroy more than 200 homes on that Thursday afternoon.

The Springwood blaze started over half a kilometre from Buckland, and while Buckland was not immediately under threat, some staff, as well as families of residents, had their homes destroyed or damaged in the fire.

The fires around Buckland on 22 October.
The fires around Buckland on 22 October.

In subsequent days, with the fires still burning out of control, Buckland was one of eight facilities considered for evacuation. Of these facilities, five would ultimately be evacuated including Principal Endeavour from Springwood, Bodington Residential Aged Care at Wentworth Falls, UnitingCare at Springwood,  the Kurrajong & District Community Nursing Home and Buckland. Springwood Hospital would also be evacuated.

Following constant liaison with government agencies and emergency services, the decision was made to evacuate more than 400 residents in high and low care, and also independent living units from Buckland. This commenced on Tuesday, 22 October. The majority of residents in independent living units self-evacuated and managed their own temporary accommodation. Those residents in care were relocated to SummitCare Penrith and SummitCare St Marys on the Tuesday.

I cannot praise enough the support, leadership, and professionalism of SummitCare to assist with the relocation of so many residents in such a short period of time. SummitCare Penrith received 77 high care residents, and SummitCare St Marys received 63 low care and independent living unit residents from Buckland.

Under the leadership of Helen Roberts, facility manager and Brendon Vos, maintenance manager, our nursing, maintenance, and administration staff worked side-by-side in an incredible feat of logistics and cooperation.

The support provided by CEO Cynthia Payne and her team at SummitCare helped to make an extremely difficult situation manageable.

The evacuation of residents would last for three days and during this time additional assistance came from many quarters. This included transport assistance from RSL LifeCare which would prove particularly beneficial when returning residents to Buckland. The Whiddon Group has acquired significant experience in managing emergencies in recent years, particularly during floods, and we are also grateful for the assistance of their registered nursing staff.

Lessons learned

The relocation of residents during the bushfire crisis has provided us with experiences which can immediately benefit other providers of age services. Some of these might seem logical to those with extensive experience in the industry, but when planning reaches realisation during a crisis it is important to note what went well and what proved challenging.

Residents, like Flora Relph, were entertained during the evacuations.
Residents, like Flora Relph, were entertained during the evacuations by Play Up entertainers.

A significant challenge was not knowing how long the emergency would last and when residents would be able to return. This imposed a degree of logistical uncertainty for both Buckland and SummitCare.

Transportation of residents was also a crucial factor, especially as there was a determination to minimise the distance required for transportation during the evacuation. While the NSW Government was able to provide some support and ambulances during the evacuation, access to other transport was needed for the timely return of residents. Local road closures also had to be navigated.

Preparation and planning was critical during the evacuation. At Buckland as a minimum we annually review and test our emergency and contingency plans. The confidence we had in activating these plans, and also in our team to carry them out, ensured we were able to commence evacuating residents as soon as the decision was made.

Clear and co-ordinated internal communications, especially during a time of crowded inboxes and many text messages, also made a difference. This particularly enabled decisions to be made without delay.

Communication with family members was also crucial during the bushfire crisis. What was particularly noticeable was the goodwill and patience from the families of residents who understood the need not to apply any undue pressure on Buckland or SummitCare Penrith and St Marys during the evacuation. Many families, especially those with relatives in the independent living units, made a point of providing their own accommodation and this significantly reduced logistical pressure, and allowed the focus to be on those residents with higher care needs.

While each of the five aged care organisations affected will have their own experiences and learnings, I know the common sentiment is to thank those from within our industry, and also our local communities, for their support and assistance during this difficult time.

Liz Roberts is chief executive officer of Buckland Aged Care Services.

Tags: bushfire, evacuation, summitcare, unitingcare,

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