When you are sitting around a table in a comfortable conference room, it can be difficult to imagine and plan for the worst-possible disaster scenarios your organization could face.

In the wake of recent weather events, however, we don't have much imagining to do. If you were like me, you watched news reports from the East Coast last fall as Hurricane Sandy came ashore, and wondered how your hospital would perform in that situation.

We can learn from the hospitals and other organizations that were affected by Sandy and other recent disasters — both natural and man-made — to make sure that when the unexpected strikes, we're ready to respond.

Although trustees are not responsible for the development of a comprehensive disaster plan, they have a fiduciary duty to ensure such a plan is in place. There are specific rules and regulations governing emergency medical care. Specifically, the Affordable Care Act states that charitable hospitals must have a written emergency medical care policy that requires the provision of emergency care, regardless of eligibility under the financial assistance policy. Joint Commission standards include creating a written emergency operations plan, conducting a hazard vulnerability analysis, working with community partners, ensuring that a communication plan is in place and conducting drills annually.

There are other aspects to consider. In an emergency, communities look to hospitals not only to mobilize resources to care for the injured, but also to provide food, shelter and other essential services. As a trustee, your input is crucial. Imagine if your community were without power for days, or even weeks, as many towns in New Jersey were last fall. How can you ensure that the needs of your employees, their families and the community are met? Is your organization prepared to be a resource for more than just urgent care?

As recent events have shown, disaster planning is imperative, even if it's something we hope never to have to use.

Katherine Keene (klinnkeene@comcast.net), is COG chair and a trustee of Salem (Ore.) Hospital.