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Military exercises: Hospital, staff part of disaster training


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A Black Hawk helicopter touched down on the helipad and soldiers moved two patients with severe facial burns onto hospital gurneys.

To passers-by, the military training exercise at Johnson Memorial Hospital this week looked about as real as it can get, aside from the numerous people recording the training on cellphones and iPads.

A simulated 911 call for the air ambulance came into Johnson County’s dispatch center in the morning. A local dispatcher contacted the military for help and the Black Hawk team from San Antonio made the flight from Camp Atterbury into Franklin with the patients. Soldiers unloaded the patients, and Johnson Memorial Hospital nurses rolled gurneys into the trauma center.

The training exercise was designed as part of the ongoing Vibrant Response disaster training exercise occurring at Camp Atterbury. The air medic crews were spending their flight training time running the exercise this week.

Training up

Overhead: A military medical helicopter crew from San Antonio flew actors pretending to be injured from Camp Atterbury to Johnson Memorial Hospital on Tuesday, Wednesday and today. The exercise allows pilots and medical staff to get practice airlifting patients and working with staff at a civilian hospital.

Disaster relief: The exercise is part of the ongoing Vibrant Response disaster relief training taking place at Camp Atterbury this month. The annual exercise brings more than 5,000 soldiers to the base to practice emergency response exercises.

Local training: Staff at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center and Johnson Memorial Hospital also benefit from the training, getting to practice taking a simulated 911 call and contacting the military for help. Emergency room nurses and doctors also practiced taking an incoming airlift patient and getting them to the trauma center for treatment.

Future: Johnson County Emergency Management Agency director Stephanie Sichting would like to plan ahead for next year’s exercise and create a training that would allow military and local police, fire and medical crews to practice an emergency scenario.

Local officials scrambled to organize the training running from Tuesday through today between U.S. Army North, dispatchers and hospital staff in less than a week.

But the county would like to plan ahead for Vibrant Response next year and try to form a larger exercise that could include military personnel at Camp Atterbury and local police, fire, medical and emergency management staff, Johnson County Emergency Management Agency director Stephanie Sichting said.

In the event of a disaster such as a nuclear detonation, hurricane or massive tornado, military units are the last group to be called in to help. Vibrant Response, an annual training at Camp Atterbury for more than 5,000 soldiers, keeps soldiers trained on how they’ll help in an event where local, state and federal emergency crews are overwhelmed.

“We have a model that we’re last in and first out. We go in. We help get a civil authority back on their feet. Once they’re ready, we back out,” Lt. Col. Allen Hahn said.

Vibrant Response was simulating a nuclear explosion that destroyed an urban area. In the scenario, local medical helicopters had more patients than they could handle. On Wednesday morning, the Black Hawk crew transported two men with serious burns and wounds to their arms and legs. As crew carried one of the actors to the hospital gurney, his gauze-wrapped arm hung limply off the side of the stretcher and his entire face was covered in makeup simulating blood and burned flesh.

The medics from the helicopter shouted patient information to nurses for about 30 seconds as the blades of the chopper continued to spin about 25 yards away. The nurses rolled the gurneys from the helipad directly into the hospital’s trauma center and began prepping the men for treatment. Specialist Jonathan Kelly arrived a few moments later and starts giving a more detailed description of their injuries and the initial treatment he’d given in the chopper.

As the training exercise closes in the trauma center, military and hospital staff began sharing notes and tips. Nurses advised Kelly that it was too hard to hear near the helicopter, so it’d be best to wait to give a detailed patient condition inside the building. Johnson Memorial Hospital emergency room director Carla Taylor suggested that the military radio ahead to give staff a better idea of if more doctors or nurses would be needed.

The training exercise was designed to give soldiers additional practice working with civilian hospitals, but local dispatchers and hospital staff also got the benefit of practicing for a disaster.

“Any time you can practice before an actual disaster and train staff and have them work through the scenarios, you just have a better prepared team. People know what to expect and they’re just trained and when people are trained they feel more comfortable in an emergency,” Taylor said.

Johnson County Sheriff’s Office communications director Grant Black is putting together training materials from the exercise for dispatchers, including the recorded 911 call requesting help, videos of the helicopter landing and patient transfer and information about what happens during a medical evacuation. Johnson Memorial Hospital staff got the experience of handling an incoming airlift patient, because patients are typically flown out of Franklin to Indianapolis critical care hospitals.

In the event of a disaster that cripples or overwhelms Indianapolis hospitals, however, Johnson Memorial Hospital could become the next option for patients needing immediate care, Sichting said.

In war zones, military units don’t need to worry about where they’re flying, but in the U.S., Army helicopters can’t just make an evacuation flight without approval. In the training exercise, that meant waiting for a simulated 911 call and then waiting for local emergency management to contact the military unit for support.

On Wednesday morning, the exercise hit a real-life hitch. Camp Atterbury had closed off the airspace because of drone flights at the camp. That snag grounded the medical chopper for an hourlong delay as Hahn made calls to get the right approval for the helicopter to take off for its flight to Franklin.

“Here we don’t own anything. The (Federal Aviation Administration) owns the airspace and civilian groups own the ground, and it takes a lot to get us involved,” Hahn said.

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