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New research examining the experiences of emergency department (ED) staff who worked during South Australia’s disastrous power blackout in 2016 has revealed frontline hospital workers require further training to prepare for future major incidents.

The Flinders University study set out to investigate the impact of severe weather in the state in 2016 that shut down electricity supplies and caused a black system event (BSE).

The authors of the study worked in emergency departments on that fateful day and subsequently realised the importance of delving into the incident in a bid to better prepare the state’s hospital system if similar large-scale events strike in future.

Titled ‘Working in the dark’, the research surveyed clinicians, collating the experiences of 49 ED staff who worked during the problematic period.

Findings argue ED staff need more training to prepare for these types of disasters and that health systems should conduct regular reviews of shortfalls of resources and areas for improvement in the event similar incidents occur.

“We were lucky that the blackout didn’t include mass casualties but it presents an opportunity to consider how these relatively infrequent events could have high consequences,” lead author Dr Karen Hammad, Senior Lecturer, College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University said.

“Emergency department staff will be frontline responders if [large-scale disasters and major incidents] happen so it is imperative that they are prepared. ED nurses and doctors already work under sustained pressure and public attention related to ambulance ramping, overcrowding, access block and violence towards staff.

“A major incident or disaster could significantly overwhelm existing resources and have dire consequences on an unprepared workforce.”

A Disaster Health expert and Associate Director of the Torrens Resilience Institute, Dr Hammad said the study found a lack of lighting and radiography, communication and patient tracking systems not working the most common ways EDs were impacted.

“While the majority of participants in the study had undertaken some form of disaster education or training, they had never been involved in a major incident of disaster,” Dr Hammad said.

“We acknowledge that training for emergency scenarios is often inadequate and can take a back seat as private and public hospitals cope with other responsibilities.”