By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
The situation appeared grim Wednesday at Hilo Medical Center.
A magnitude-7.0 earthquake had struck Hawaii Island, and up to 90 residents in the extended care facility next door were in need of being evacuated. Patients lay on gurneys and beds under tents. Responders went from person to person, assessing the situation.
A tent in the extended care parking lot served as a temporary staging area for triage to identify the most needy patients first and direct them to another location for treatment. A temporary acute care module in the hospital’s mauka parking lot was set up to treat the injured. Meanwhile, leaders in a command center inside the hospital monitored the situation and directed the rescue efforts.
Up to 800 hospital employees, firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians, hazmat team members and representatives from the Healthcare Association of Hawaii joined together Wednesday for the state’s largest disaster drill, according to Arthur Sampaga, HMC’s emergency management coordinator.
“Today is a full-on triage. We are in disaster mode,” he said. “It’s a hospital-wide scenario with all hands on deck.”
Each year, he said, HMC employees participate in between four and six such drills, with the largest generally taking place in March. There are a variety of scenarios, natural disasters and mass-casualty situations for which they train, he said, and it’s all about finding weak links in the chain so that they can review their performance and improve.
“We’re always looking to make improvements in our procedure, and modify and tweak it,” he said. “Our community should be pretty comfortable in knowing that we are well trained, and we have a bunch of motivated personnel.”
One area which is always a concern during an emergency event is communication, said Bill Richter, clinical coordinator for the Emergency Services Program at Healthcare Association of Hawaii (HAH).
“In almost every disaster, communication is a big problem,” he said.
Because various responders, such as police, fire and EMT workers, have various methods of communicating, vital messages can sometimes get slowed down or lost in translation, he said.
“We’re here, helping to identify those communications issues,” he said.
In the drills, and in the event of a real catastrophe, HAH also helps to provide additional staffing, equipment and supplies, as well as expertise. The organization also provided the $250,000 to purchase Hilo Medical Center’s emergency field hospital unit, known as an acute care module. The temporary tent structure comes with generators to provide electricity, room for up to 20 acute care patients, and can even supply air conditioning to keep its patients comfortable. There are two of the mobile units on the island, with the second at Kona Community Hospital. They are both stored in trailers and are ready to be deployed wherever they are needed, Richter said.
In addition to the usual medical concerns one might expect, putting on a rescue operation like Wednesday’s also incorporates planning for a variety of outside concerns, said HMC Director of Marketing Mary Stancill.
“We’ve got to reroute traffic … track the patients, almost like UPS with the bar codes … set up a press area, and designated areas for families and visitors … we even have a component for registering pets,” she said.
Registering pets was a lesson learned during Hurricane Katrina, added Adria Estribou, manager of communications for HAH. Rescue workers often encountered patients who refused to go anywhere without their beloved animals, and that put human lives at risk, she said.
“Some wouldn’t go anywhere without them,” she said. “So we have a system now to keep track of pets.”
Another concern, Stancill added, is that rescue workers stay with their patients, rather than rushing home to be with their families in a disaster situation.
“We’ve asked our employees to take an oath,” she said. “If we have 200 patients, we cannot abandon them. Every new employee must commit to staying here for as long as needed.”
At the end of the exercise, which took a week to plan and about seven hours to pull off, organizers met in the hospital command center for a debriefing and review, to identify areas that might need more work in future drills. It’s a continual process, explained Richter, and those who do the work and put in the practice and self assessment will reap the benefits.
“Overall, Hilo Medical Center did an excellent job in planning this,” he said. “It was a very complicated scenario, and they did a very good job, and I think the community should be very pleased.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.