A medical emergency might be the last thing on anyone's mind when they're enjoying the fun and fellowship of a religious meeting or convention - until there's a crisis. But if you're prepared in advance, a crisis can be handled quickly and with the greatest chance of a happy outcome for everyone.

Tips for Handling Crises - Evaluate a facility's ability to handle an emergency during your very first contact with the property's representative. Ask if the property has a safety program. Find out what the ratio is of untrained staff to staff trained in CPR, and about the presence of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and how many of the staff has been trained to use them. Not all facilities have AEDs, but it's worth asking because they have a 90 percent resuscitation rate when the victim receives the shock within a minute of his or her heart stopping. Although there's no central database of AED-equipped venues, Warren, Ohio - based SafeMeetings (www.safemeetings.com) has announced plans to launch one.

- Consider the demographics of your meeting's attendees. What's the age range? Do you have individuals or groups who have made you aware of pre-existing medical conditions and special needs? Will certain circumstances, such as weather or special activities, increase the odds of illnesses or injuries?

- During the site inspection, question the staff. Ask "What should I do if someone is having a heart attack? What number should I call on the house phone if there's a medical emergency?" See if they know the answers. "Catch someone in the hall - housekeeping, maintenance, someone like that," suggests Richard Obertos, founder of SafeMeetings.

- Learn the site-specific number that operates the property's emergency response. Every venue has a different number, and it's not necessarily 911.

Note: Many cellphones do not work with Enhanced 911 systems. Attempting to call 911 on a cellphone will not allow the call recipient to identify the caller's location, or emergency personnel may arrive with few people at the facility being aware that they have been called.

- Begin communicating with attendees about emergency preparedness with the pre-meeting information. Send a separate e-mail on the subject. At every opportunity, make attendees aware of the facility's emergency number, whether AEDs are available, and where local hospitals are located. Printed emergency information should be put in a stand-alone piece rather than burying it in a letter or brochure.

- Designate a medical emergency response team leader and a support staff. The team leader should be in close contact with a meetings-specific specialist for ongoing support and quality assurance. Consider training your staff members with the Heart Saver course, CPR, and AED instruction so that they can recognize and address medical emergencies when they arise. Designate specific people to manage the needs of people who have become ill or injured, such as communicating with family members and making transportation arrangements for them.

- Consult with risk management, legal, and insurance specialists. "Disclosure is the best policy," advises attorney Jed R. Mandel, who is a partner in the Chicago-based law firm of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, a columnist for this magazine, and a speaker at the 2001 RCMA Conference.

- "Simply disclosing where the nearest hospital is or whether a doctor is on call goes a long way in being reasonably prudent," he says. Typically, the meeting organizer is not responsible, but cases are very fact-specific and could potentially make anyone liable. "The timing of a heart attack, for instance, is not in the control of the planner," Mandel points out, "but there are bizarre fact scenarios that sometimes can make the organizer responsible."

When Myra Cook, convention sales manager with the Roanoke (Va.) Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, felt dizzy at a tutorial session at the RCMA Conference and Exposition in Dallas on February 3, 2000, RCMA staffers not only put their medical emergency plan into fast action - they also added a large dose of caring to help Cook through her crisis.

Feeling "a little bit off," Cook excused herself from the session, apologizing to her teammates for leaving a few minutes early. She was met outside the door by an RCMA staff member, who already had radio in hand. As soon as she informed him of her condition, he immediately called for help. Before Cook knew it, three more RCMA staff members, including RCMA's executive director, came on the scene. They made her comfortable, got her a wheelchair, and escorted her to the medical clinic next door in no time flat. Cook's ailment turned out to be an inner ear inflammation that the doctor told her probably was brought on by the flight to Dallas. "A shot of medicine fixed me right up," Cook says.

According to Cook, the RCMA staff "was right there for me from the minute I said I was feeling dizzy until the doctor was in control. RCMA's quick-thinking staff came up with a wheelchair, secured a doctor, and stayed with me the entire time. Everyone showed me what a wonderful, caring organization RCMA is. They found the people I was with and brought them to the clinic to be with me. They've even called several times since the conference to make sure I was all right. They have just been angels to me.

"I've been at other organizations' meetings where these types of things occurred, and they weren't handled well," Cook says. "But at RCMA, they really took care of me. Attendees at RCMA don't need to worry about what might happen in an emergency. RCMA handled everything professionally, quickly, and with care."