More than 50 doctors, nurses and medical technicians from as far away as Puerto Rico spent this week at the Center for Domestic Preparedness learning how to work in disasters.
On Friday, their training culminated with drill with the following scenario: A national singing competition in Anniston on Friday is struck by terrorists, resulting in injuries that quickly overwhelm a local hospital.
Large, military-looking tents set up outside the Noble Training Hospital at McClellan quickly filled with mock victims and the medical personnel treating them.
Those professionals are members of disaster medical assistance teams from across the country. The teams are part of a program of the National Disaster Medical System, which puts medical personnel on the ground after emergencies.
The system, which operated on a $52 million budget in 2013, is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Center for Domestic Preparedness partners with the department to hold these training sessions in Anniston, providing support, equipment and facilities.
Lou DeGilio, section chief for the National Disaster Medical System, said team members are taught how to do their jobs in the chaotic setting of a disaster, where resources are limited and the flow of incoming patients can be overwhelming.
The program works similar to the National Guard. Team members on deployment become active federal employees with all the benefits and pay during their disaster response work.
“Any area, regardless of their abilities to provide care, regardless of how robust their system is, can be overwhelmed,” DeGilio said, speaking of the aftermath of a disaster.
In the hours after Hurricane Sandy, the many hospitals in the area were hit with the same waters and winds that battered residents along the East Coast, DeGilio explained.
“We can bring in our own stand-alone facilities,” DeGilio said.
There are 86 teams across the country, 60 of which are Disaster Medical Assistance Teams like the ones training in Anniston Friday. Others are specialized to care for animals, mass fatalities, surgical needs and other specific areas of aid.
Keith Lindsay, a team commander from Massachusetts and a paramedic firefighter in his civilian job, sent five members of his team this week to provide medical care and aid to the many thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the southwestern border of the U.S.
On June 2, President Obama issued a memorandum addressing the influx of those children. The president requested a coordinated effort of multiple federal, state and local agencies to provide humanitarian aid.
As legislators continue to debate immigration, many emergency aid providers see the problem of thousands of children risking their lives to enter the country alone as a humanitarian issue.
“From our standpoint, we take the politics right out of it,” said Dr. Andrew Garrett, director of the National Disaster Medical System. “We’re public health and medical. There are politics in everything we do, but from the medical side, our teams are medical support and public health support.”
Garrett, a pediatrician from Massachusetts, said the training sessions in Anniston were piloted near the end of 2013, and already, more than 500 team members from across the country have received training at the CDP.
A few team members Friday carried handheld computers used to relay medical information to superiors on the scene, and to administrators in Washington who use that information to determine the severity of the disaster and how best to respond.
“For Hurricane Sandy, we were able to have some good early intelligence,” Garrett said.
Teams have responded to all sorts of natural disasters and emergency situations, and no two have identical needs, team members said Friday. Sometimes, what victims of a disaster require most is compassion.
Gary Kruschke, commander of a team in Florida, is a fire captain at Fort Walton Beach Fire Department when he isn’t responding to disasters and terror attacks, such as the one that saw two airplanes fly into the World Trade Center towers in New York in 2001.
“It was heavily charged, emotionally and mentally,” Kruschke said of his deployment to New York after the attacks there. “We did a lot of cuts and bruises with the people that were working, but more importantly, we did a lot of talking and listening.”
Those teams are made up of people who do clinical care every day, and who want to serve, Garrett said.
“I never like to say this, but most of these folks would do it for free. This is how we have chosen to serve,” he said.