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Dobbins Hosts Mass Casualty Public Health Disaster Exercise

September 4, 2013

Originally published on Oct. 17, 2011

This was a test. This was only a test. A deadly influenza pandemic takes Georgia by storm.

Hundreds of thousands of people fall ill from a rogue virus with such speed and efficacy that area health clinics and hospitals are completely overwhelmed.

A state of emergency is declared. But as quickly as that haunting squelch and “Emergency Alert System” message booms across the airwaves, phone lines have lit up behind the scenes and Pam Blackwell’s Emergency Preparedness and Response team is on the move.

This was a test. This was only a test.

But had the above scenario been a real-life mass casualty event, Blackwell, a registered nurse by trade and director of the Cobb & Douglas Public Health office that oversees the EPR unit, would have been en route to Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

There, her unit would deploy and coordinate with several other state and federal public health and disaster response agencies to receive and treat the sick and mortally injured in much the same way Blackwell and about 100 emergency responder volunteers rehearsed it Saturday under clear skies and a breezy 73 degrees.

“This is what you might call herding cats,” said Blackwell, who stands a hair above five feet tall but is considered a giant in her field from former positions as Georgia state trauma director and Cobb County’s director of clinical services. “But I’m a nurse, a real nurse. And if somebody goes down I’m on it.”

Dobbins ARB’s 94th ALW played host to this backstop, intra-agency operation, what to public health is to skydiving when an emergency parachute deploys after the main canopy malfunctions.

That terrible realization of the ground rushing up from below with seconds to spare and the disastrous consequence of a full-speed impact are just as real and relevant as a mass-casualty public health scenario to these public health professionals. This specialized group is who first responders turn to for help when the traditional health system is overwhelmed or fails altogether.

“This is a big deal for us to train in real world time, finding deficiencies in our operations so we can have a plan,” said Josephine Atkins-Scafe, a Master Sergeant reservist with Dobbins ARB’s 22nd Air Force combat readiness unit and chief of emergency management. “But unless you exercise you really don’t know. And we need to know.”

Rewind to 2005 and Hurricane Katrina, the costliest and one of the most deadly natural disasters the United States has ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of residents living along the Gulf of Mexico were displaced by relentless storm surges. But none more so than those in the line of direct impact throughout Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

An airlift operation brought thousands of Louisiana residents—most from New Orleans whose casualty count was the greatest at nearly 2,000—out from the murky waters that had enveloped entire parishes and up to Dobbins ARB where the sick, injured, hungry and dehydrated, including thousands of family pets that evacuees refused to leave behind, were treated before they were relocated to alternate and eventually permanent housing.

Dobbins ARB’s 94th ALW led Katrina’s air evacuation efforts with its mighty and nimble C-130 Hercules cargo prop planes, capable of landing and takeoff on airstrips that would test the mettle of aircrafts a fraction of their size with or without full payload.

Dobbins' sprawling flight line, abundance of hangar staging areas and its role as a central air support operation along the east coast and Atlantic theater make it the ideal staging and response hub, said First Sergeant Jeffrey Ulmer with the volunteer Georgia State Defense Force, First Medical Company, 132nd Medical Batallion.

“We want to be experts in this so we can be diversified in all scenarios,” Ulmer said. “Whenever the state needs us we’ll be ready. We’re the true volunteer force.”

First Sgt. Ulmer’s volunteer force working in conjunction with Dobbins ARB’s fire brigade and Blackwell’s Emergency Preparedness and Response team, put its skills and training to the test Saturday deploying a Mobile Surge Unit, essentially an inflatable hospital tent replete with tunnels and walls to divide and separate triage zones.

The heavy blue vinyl and plastic structure is so advanced that it comes with its own computer monitored HVAC system powered by stand-alone generators.

Each Mobile Surge Unit is capable of multiple configurations and can accommodate up to 50 patients at one time and process approximately 100 casualties in a 24-hour cycle, according to Dobbins ARB public affairs.

Whether its a natural disaster, biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear event, the Mobile Surge Units can be equipped to handle any number of mass casualty events within their multiple configurations, said Dobbins ARB’s public affairs officer Shaun Shenk.

“This goes back to Dobbins’ commitment to working with the public, public agencies and the community around us,” Shenk said. These same units provide support during air shows and other public events hosted by Dobbins and are deployed to support other military-civilian sponsored events throughout the state and elsewhere if needed, Shenk said.

A leading unit of the Air Force Reserve Command, the 94th Airlift Wing maintains the mighty C-130 Hercules fleet and combat-ready units to deploy on short notice and support for more than 10,000 guardsmen, reservists and civilians at the world's largest joint air reserve base.

Until recently the wing's primary mission was to train active duty, guard and reserve component aircrews at the C-130 H2 Flight Training Unit.

But a recent shift to Air Mobility Command redirects the 94th’s focus from passive training to aggressive strike and counterstrike operations.

-Republished with Permission from Marietta Patch/Poncho Wilson