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TDIC offers tips to prepare dental practices for wildfire season

June 26, 2019 3025
Sign showing today's fire danger

As some dental practices in California continue to recover from the devastating effects of the 2018 wildfires, The Dentists Insurance Company advises dentists to be prepared for not only the 2019 wildfire season but also for the possibility of year-round wildfire threats. Making sure all practice records, including patient charts and accounts receivable, are backed up often with copies kept in cloud storage or an off-site location is an important step.

As some dental practices in California continue to recover from the devastating effects of the 2018 wildfires, The Dentists Insurance Company advises dentists to be prepared for not only the 2019 wildfire season but also for the possibility of year-round wildfire threats.

Although historically the season has started in July, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen warned in an NPR interview in June that wildfires are now a “year-round phenomenon.” On the heels of that interview, Christiansen’s warning was illustrated in California when residents in rural Yolo County were evacuated as state firefighters fought a fast-moving wildfire, Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia was evacuated because of a wildfire and Pacific Gas & Electric Company cut off power to thousands of customers as a fire safety precaution. With that in mind, dentists should take steps now to prepare their practices for cases of wildfire and other potential disasters, said Taiba Solaiman, senior risk management analyst at The Dentists Insurance Company.

“A catastrophic event such as a wildfire can be devastating to a dental office. Being prepared will help minimize the interruption and assist with resuming patient care should a practice be affected by a wildfire,” she said.

Making sure all practice records, including patient charts and accounts receivable, are backed up often with copies kept in cloud storage or an off-site location is an important step in the preparation process, said Colette Johnson, TDIC senior claims representative. Johnson has worked with dentists who were affected by the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County as well as by fires that originated within the practice.

Checking that backups work is also a crucial step. “Please verify your backups, especially backups of patient records,” she said. “If you don’t have the technical information to know you have a good backup, have your IT specialist run a restore of your backup.”

Johnson also recommends taking videos of the interior of the practice and keeping those videos and any inventory lists in a separate location. Important documents can also be kept in a fireproof safe.

Several dentists whose practices and homes were destroyed by 2018 wildfires stress the importance of staying well covered by insurance policies. As reported in May, Jeremy Chatfield, DDS, lost both his Paradise, Calif., practice and the house he shared with his wife and three daughters to the Camp Fire.

"One thing I would recommend is reviewing your insurance policies every year and increasing them as you purchase new equipment,” he said. “Also make sure you understand them, and if you don't, get someone who does to go over it with you.”

David Pokras, DDS, who practices at Southern California Endodontic Group in Simi Valley, discovered he was underinsured when he lost his house in the Woolsey Fire. “The next time we purchase homeowners or fire insurance, I will make sure we have enough insurance coverage to rebuild,” he said. “It is expensive to rebuild and building costs are only going up.”

Dr. Chatfield, his staff and a patient narrowly escaped the wildfire that took out his practice, underscoring the importance of planning ahead to ensure the safety of both staff and any patients who may be in the practice at the time of a fire. Johnson with TDIC advises dentists to know their community’s evacuation plans, to map out several evacuation routes and to make sure employees are aware of those routes.

She also suggests they sign up for their community’s emergency alert notification system and to keep a well-stocked emergency kit on-site at all times. “The kit should include N95 respirator masks, which cover the nose and mouth and help keep the wearer from breathing in smoke and other hazardous substances,” Johnson said.

After a wildfire

If the unimaginable happens and a practice is damaged by a wildfire, a business continuity plan can be a valuable tool for dentists to use to ensure that gaps in patient care are kept to the very minimum, Solaiman said. The plan should include the following guidelines for handling patient emergencies:

  • Make arrangements with colleagues in the surrounding area who might be able to accommodate emergency referrals or are willing to accept a temporary time-sharing arrangement for their office’s off-hours to facilitate at least partial patient care until the damaged office is operational again.
  • Notify patients of your temporary location via signage at your office (if applicable), an answering service and phone messages.
  • If referring patients to a colleague, document those referrals and any discussions with patients and the course of action taken, such as prescribed medications, advised to go the nearest hospital, etc.
  • If a patient was referred to a colleague, follow up on the status of the referral to determine if the patient was seen and, if so, the services rendered.

Johnson also recommends that practices take these steps to begin the recovery process:

  • Report an insurance claim.
  • Reroute office phone numbers to the dentist’s cell phone or emergency exchange line.
  • Contact and inform patients of practice status and relocation.
  • Take photos of damages if law enforcement, the fire department and city officials have allowed entrance to the building.
  • Provide copies of inventory lists and financial documentation to the insurance adjuster.
  • Make sure companies that are offering assistance after the fire are licensed.
  • Do not start any cleaning or removal until the loss site has been inspected by the insurance company.

Funds made available through the CDA Foundation’s Disaster Relief Grant can also help dentists and their dependents and staff who are affected by wildfires get back on their feet.

Contact TDIC and CDA Practice Support to learn more about preparing for wildfire season. Additional information on preparing for an emergency such as a wildfire can be found on the Federal Emergency Management Agency website.