March 28, 2017 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Avoiding the ‘perfect storm’ emergency

Emergency action plans and how they should be used in your program

The Kalani High School (Hawaii) campus was a busy place that warm autumn afternoon. On the field, the school’s varsity and junior varsity football teams excitedly practiced for their upcoming seasons. Parking lots were filling up as parents arrived for the school’s annual open house. With the school situated just off the highway, the school events caused the campus road, which encircles the football field, to back up with cars.

I made my rounds of the various fall sport practices and was excited about our sports program. Early fall is a positive time on a high school campus, filled with hope, promise and expectations for the new seasons.

I swung by the school’s cafeteria where parents started checking in for the open house. I wanted to greet some of the early arriving parents and do a last-minute check on the sound system. Suddenly, my walkie-talkie crackled with the words, “Athletic trainer to A.D., please report to the field!”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the perfect autumn afternoon had set up a perfect storm of events, where, despite having an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in place and practiced by staff, lessons still would be learned.

Situation outside of EAP coverage

I quickly came out of the cafeteria, which is located directly across from the football field, and saw our athletic department’s EAP already in full swing. As trained, the varsity and junior varsity teams had been moved to the extreme opposite side of the football field from the incident. The athletic trainer’s cart was parked near the center of the field and our two athletic trainers, and a couple of coaches, were huddled around a fallen football player.

As I arrived on the scene, I noticed the player’s mask had been cut off and one of the athletic trainers was supporting the player’s neck. When I saw the player’s face, I knew him as a deaf student from the neighboring Hawaii Center for the Deaf and Blind. Athletes from this school do not have an athletic program and participate on our teams.

Dealing with an injured athlete who is deaf presented some challenging moments for our trainers as they rely heavily on communication from the athlete to determine the symptoms and extent of the injury. This serious situation involving a player unable to hear was not something we were prepared for. Even so, I was amazed by the incredible sense of calm everyone showed. While there was a skills trainer on site who signed to the player, the athlete had lost all sensation in his extremities, and he was unable to sign back.

Requiring quick thinking from all parties involved, we relied on having the athlete blink his eyes to answer questions signed to him. Once this form of communication was established, the remainder of the EAP was enacted. Paramedics were called. Coaches covered the various entrances to direct the ambulance to the scene. Parents were contacted. A person was assigned to travel with the student-athlete. Practice now was over and the teams were escorted back to the locker room away from the scene.

Debrief the EAP to learn

The health and well being of the athlete was not compromised and he returned to play before the end of the season. Everyone involved was satisfied with the handling of the situation but the experience prompted me to take our EAP one step further. We added a debriefing of all parties to evaluate the effectiveness of the EAP.

Most high school EAPs are based on hypothetical situations common to athletics and responses are expected to be neat and perfect. While this is logical, it is imperative to fine tune your EAP after a serious situation occurs based on the specific experience.

After our situation, I met with our athletic trainers, coaches, skills trainers and administration to review what happened. My sole question to initiate the discussion was simple: “What could we have done better?” This prompted a great deal of dialogue.

The following are the main concerns expressed and the answers/resolutions developed to improve our level of care:

Traffic on campus was bad. Due to the multiple events held on campus that day, traffic would have been difficult to control under any circumstances. Unfortunately, there is no getting around this issue based on logistics.

Cars were parked in emergency lanes. When multiple events are occurring on campus, we now plan with the school service clubs to provide parking control. We also place cones in emergency lanes before all events.

The emergency gate to the field was too narrow for the EMS vehicle to pass through. We placed a work order to get the gate widened and cited health and safety issues to expedite the process.

We didn’t have the resources to work with a hearing-impaired athlete in an emergency situation. Our staff met with the student’s respective school to ensure that a skilled trainer always is available. For our school’s part, we plan to provide basic sign language lesson resources for our athletic trainers.

Emergency forms were in the office and not on the field. We have mandated that emergency forms be present with the coach on the field or court. There never should be a delay in providing emergency forms to those who need them in that situation.

Other smaller issues were discussed and addressed, then the EAP was updated and redistributed.

Treat EAP as a living document

More schools seem on board with having an EAP. But if you don’t re-evaluate and update it, then it loses its relevance. The EAP is a living, breathing document and must be evaluated at least once per year. Based on our experience, we evaluate it after every emergency occurrence.

The day after an emergency, conduct a debriefing while the experience is fresh in everyone’s minds. Once your EAP goes through an actual emergency, you learn it needs to be adjusted to meet real scenarios and not just hypothetical ones.

Lightning strikes twice

Oddly enough, the exact situation occurred on campus the next year. Thanks to the previous year’s debriefing, we handled the emergency much better. Despite the identical circumstances, we held a meeting with all parties the following day. We had to ensure our EAP was relevant in this situation.

Many athletic directors and coaches may never experience the perfect storm of events we did but it’s critical to have an EAP in place just in case lightning strikes. Review the EAP after each emergency. Update it regularly and protect your athletes, coaches and administrators.

Gregory Van Cantfort is a Certified Athletic Administrator (CAA) at Kalani High School in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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