State, federal teams prepare for hurricane season

By Senior Airman Samantha S. Crane | 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs | June 03, 2010

NEW ORLEANS –As ambulance after ambulance pulls up to the tents on the flightline, medical staff members rush out to carry in patients on litters brought in from local hospitals. With only 72 hours until the hurricane makes landfall, it appears to be chaos to the untrained eye. But there is a method to the madness, and this method will save lives.

While it's only an exercise this time, it may be real the next time these teams come together. With the training the state and federal teams receive here at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport, future hurricane operations will run more smoothly than in the past.

The exercise, which ran May 18 through 20, was controlled by officials from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals with the help of multiple military counterparts including Air Mobility Command and U.S. Transportation Command members from Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Participants practiced Louisiana's Medical Institution Evacuation Plan in a disaster aeromedical staging facility where they treated patients from local medical facilities until aeromedical evacuation arrived.

The MIEP, developed after Hurricane Katrina and used during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, is an evacuation plan for hospitals that don't have the capability or resources to get patients to safety.

This exercise marked the first-ever field exercise validation of a new concept to combine Department of Defense disaster aeromedical staging expertise with Department of Health and Human Services disaster medical care capability to form a single, highly capable disaster team.

The team's goal is to increase the speed and safety of patient movement as the federal government assists state and local authorities to move patients out of harm's way.

Both Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Douglas Robb, the AMC command surgeon, and Col. (Dr.) Lawrence Riddles, the USTRANSCOM command surgeon, agree that using the new concept when moving patients from local ambulances to DOD AE aircraft is, "the right answer."

While two teams of medical professionals from Travis AFB, Calif., and Joint Base Charleston, S.C., formed the disaster aeromedical staging facility and processed and cared for stabilized patients, DHHS Disaster Medical Operation Detachment teams from Hawaii, Tennessee and New York evaluated and cared for critical care patients.

Members of the 43rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron from Pope AFB, N.C., and the 146th Airlift Wing from the California Air National Guard formed the AE crews to transport patients aboard Kentucky Air National Guard C-130 Hercules.

"We've taken civilian criteria and merged it with military criteria to combine our different languages to make it work," said Lt. Col. Rebekah Friday, the team leader from the 628th Medical Group at JB Charleston. "We proved the concept."

While the first two days of the exercise consisted of caring for mannequins, the medical teams spent the last day caring for health care workers from area medical facilities acting as patients brought in by ambulance.

"The mannequins are vital for training, but it's a whole different experience to have the patients talking, yelling or even kicking and swinging at you," said 2nd Lt. Kim Capasso, a nurse from Travis AFB. "In a real situation, it will be a terrifying ordeal for some of the patients, and we need to be prepared to handle their reactions and keep everyone safe while getting the job done."

The multiple teams had no experience working together prior to the exercise and had to work through many challenges to come together as a team.

"We had so much experience between the different teams that combining them in such a short amount of time seemed impossible," said Capt. Frances Gonzalez, a nurse from Travis AFB, "but by the end of the second day, there was only one team."

Other participants included the Louisiana National Guard, Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Louisiana Hospital Association, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Army North, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, FEMA, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Louisiana State Police and U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs.

"Make no mistake, this exercise today will save lives," said Alan Levine, the DHH secretary.