Medical response team trains for potential SOTU mass casualty incident

Known as Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, the groups consist of doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTs, pharmacists and even veterinarians

By Jeremy Arias
The Frederick News-Post

FREDERICK, Md. — As the nation prepares for the president’s final State of the Union address Tuesday, a team of federal disaster and medical experts arrived in Frederick to prepare for the worst — a potential mass-casualty event in Washington timed to coincide with President Barack Obama’s speech.

No one is predicting such an event, but if it were to happen, the team deployed here in Frederick would be ready to triage and treat the injured.

Known as Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, the groups consist of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and even veterinarians from all over the country. While holding down day jobs in their chosen professions, team members are designated temporary federal employees when they are called into action by the Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for preparedness and response, Nicole Lurie.

The medical professionals are paid by HHS when they mobilize ahead of scheduled events, such as State of the Union addresses and political party national conventions, said Gretchen B. Michael, a spokeswoman for Lurie’s office.

Teams may also deploy to natural disasters and relief efforts, said Ron Miller, acting director of the National Disaster Medical System. Teams were sent to Haiti after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake in 2010, as well as to New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“We have 80 teams across the country. Seventy-seven are medical in some capacity, and that goes from our disaster medical assistance team to — we have national veterinary response teams, we have international medical surgical teams and we have disaster mortuary response teams,” Miller said. “So anywhere from injury to death.”

While smaller teams of medical professionals, referred to as “strike teams,” will be in place in Washington ahead of the president’s State of the Union address at 9 p.m. Tuesday, a larger group of 48 professionals set up shop on Sunday at an HHS support center on English Muffin Way in Frederick.

The team will be on hand to back up the smaller strike teams just in case, but if all goes smoothly, the larger group — designated PA-1 from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area — will run training exercises to prepare for future deployments, said Knox Walk, a unit commander.

After setting up their tents Sunday, PA-1 members got to work Monday, going down an extensive checklist to prepare for a real deployment.

In one tent, employees learned how to use the most recent electronic medical record system to keep HHS command up-to-date on the team’s activities and what kinds of medical supplies they were using, while another tent focused on getting team members fitted with respiration masks.

“So the goal is to keep everybody busy, but really it’s also to fulfill some of the annual requirements of being an employee,” Walk said. “And this is an annual employee requirement — going through fit training.”

Team members come from every medical background, Walk said. Reasons for joining the teams vary as widely as the areas of the country from which team members hail.

Constance Banks, a pharmacist from Beltsville, got involved when the Federal Emergency Management Agency used to run the teams before the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“I was looking for volunteer opportunities at some point in the early 2000s, and during that time the teams were separate under FEMA, and then when the teams went over to Health and Human Services, I received some emails asking if I was still interested. ... They put me on the PA-1 team at that point,” she said.

Under HHS, response groups were streamlined from separate teams of specialized medical professionals to include a fuller spectrum of experts in different fields, Walk said.

“[We] have an EMS chief who is also a paramedic, an EMT who works at a hospital, an ICU nurse, a nurse practitioner, a nurse anesthetist, a paramedic nurse, a nurse who is also a mental health professional, an internal medicine physician, a trauma surgeon physician and a doctor of pharmacology,” Walk said, moving down a group of team members lined up in one of the tents to receive training.

The diversity of each team’s members allows the teams to handle assignments as varied as patching up scraped knees at a Fourth of July parade on the National Mall and saving lives in a natural disaster zone, Walk said.

“We have a wonderful group of people who represent all of health care, and each one of them, if you were here yesterday, you saw them setting up tents and setting up cots,” he said. “These folks do medicine, but they also take care of everything else.”

(c)2016 The Frederick News-Post

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