Two local hospitals will use thousands of dollars of federal money to improve their ability to respond to natural disasters, disease outbreaks, or acts of terrorism.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently distributed $390.5 million in grants through its 2010 Hospital Preparedness program. Pennsylvania's share is $15,267,347.

Blue Mountain Health System's Gnaden Huetten Memorial Hospital in Lehighton last year received $41,000 and its Palmerton Hospital, $36,601, and received roughly the same amount this year, said Terry Purcell, vice-president of Ambulatory and Support Services.

"We have received funding for emergency preparedness such as litters, defibrillators, negative pressure room, portable decontamination units," said Blue Mountain Health System spokeswoman Lisa Johnson. "The last two years we've used the funding for emergency preparedness training and implementing our Hospital Incident Command training and coordinated our emergency planning training with Carbon County."

On June 25, Blue Mountain Health System performed a "'tabletop' exercise in which we were given disaster situations that included changes/updates on the situations and we used our training to manage them," she said.

St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital, Coaldale, got $35,914 last year, said spokeswoman Andrea Visnosky. The hospital has yet to release the figure for this year. The hospital's Bethlehem and Allentown campuses received a total of $108,363 last year and $114,215 this year.

"Through the Hospital Preparedness Program, St. Luke's not only receives funding, but also guidance on what we should be preparing for in case of a disaster, disease outbreak or other emergency. Since it's a national grant, we're able to learn from other hospitals about what worked, what didn't work, how the emergency was handled, in addition to other things, in order to best prepare ourselves for an emergency. We always hope we're only preparing and never have to implement our emergency plan, but we hold drills several times a year, on different scales, and meet regularly to be sure we'll be ready to respond should an emergency situation occur," said Rob Smith, manager of Safety and Security at St. Luke's Allentown Campus, administrator of funds for St. Luke's Bethlehem and Allentown, and interim co-chair of St. Luke's emergency management committee.

Here's how the grants are determined: The base grant per facility is $30,000, then a certain dollar amount for all emergency room visits reported to the Health Department is added, said Department of Health spokeswoman Holli Senior. The grants range from $31,000 to $144,000. Any hospital that is getting over $100,000 has more than one facility on its license.

The amount of money going to Pennsylvania hospitals is around $8 million, she said. The rest goes to other health care-related preparedness activities, including special populations planning and emergencies services. Some of the money is also used to offset administrative costs.

The grants are distributed by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response through the Hospital Preparedness Program, which began several years ago.

The money is used by state and local governments to help hospitals and other health care organizations strengthen the "medical surge" capability across the nation, according to the office of Health and Human Services. The improvements include creating better interoperable communication systems and improving systems to track available hospital beds, advance registration of volunteer health professionals, processes for hospital evacuations or sheltering-in-place and processes for fatality management; strengthening health care partnerships at the community level and strengthening hospital participation in statewide and regional exercise programs.

Over the past five years, the grants have also been used to improve bed and personnel surge capacity, decontamination capabilities, isolation capacity, pharmaceutical supplies, training, education, drills and exercises.