With a devastating year for natural disasters across the world, the Oklahoma National Guard sought to test its ability to coordinate with local, state and federal agencies in a realistic training environment for first responders and coordinators to practice emergency response techniques.
“With things that have been going on like hurricanes near the Gulf and wildfires in California, there are just a lot of natural disasters this year and they seem to be happening more often,” said Maj. Casey Patton, medical crew coordinator and senior health technician at the 137th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron here. “I think our training has certainly given us the edge to be able to answer the call of the governor or the president to assist in any way we can.”
In a wildfire scenario, Airmen of the 137 AES treated, transported and stabilized simulated burn victims from Will Rogers Air National Guard Base to Altus Air Force Base in Altus, Oklahoma.
Though other scenarios across the state included earthquakes, tornadoes and flooding, the wildfire scenario was especially relevant for the participants.
“Burn scenarios are a fairly common scenario that we work through,” said Staff Sgt. Avery Keller, aeromedical evacuation technician, 137 AES. “Considering the nature of the patients we deal with in a deployed setting, burn training is one of the more important pieces of air evacuation as a whole. As crew members, we're called upon to have in-depth knowledge of each and every type of injury and illness we come across, as well as how to manage it. What makes burn trauma so challenging is the depth and breadth of care required, and the vast differences that can occur between two different burns.”
In a real-world disaster, the 137 AES is tasked with the transportation of victims out of dangerous areas and into safer environments with access to long-term medical care facilities. In this case, the simulated wildfires occurred in Oklahoma and the members transported the simulated victims, both military and civilian, to Altus in the southwest part of the state, which would be used as a distribution point for patients in a similar real emergency.
“In a disaster, there are so many variables that you can’t plan for,” said Patton. “We just try to make it as austere as possible in a contingency environment. We try to plan scenarios with unpredictability and chaos thrown in, maybe even some unanswered questions that force the air crews to think outside the box.”
In a response like this, the 137 AES would work closely with Army National Guard or civilian medical ground crews to transfer patients to more permanent medical facilities. However, the differences in vernacular and operating procedures can also be a challenge.
“The transfer from the ground personnel to the air crew was something where we really tried to imitate real life,” said Patton. “The Army or civilian population may document a patient in a certain way, and our documentation is specific to aeromedical evacuation in the Air Force. So there are two different operating systems to translate. We’re training our air crew to be able to translate the information that the ground medical facility may give us so that we can better care for the patient in the air.”
During the scenario, the “patients” were played by members from various squadrons of the 137 SOW. Nearly five hours before the flight, make-up was applied to give patients a variety of different injuries ranging from burns and scrapes to bone injuries and missing eyes.
“The addition of moulage and/or real human patients adds a level of accuracy to the training,” said Keller. “As flyers, we never truly know how well we're trained until we see the real thing. A flyer who has seen a live human with moulaged burns all over his back is going to be much more cognizant of the unique challenges that it poses and more prepared to take care of a patient with genuine burns on his back. Every step we take towards more realistic training is an invaluable leap in readiness for our experienced and inexperienced members alike.”
The patients were able to see how an aeromedical evacuation response works from start to finish and experience the in-air medical care firsthand.
“I strongly believe that the AES team was very effective,” said Staff Sgt. Sarai Chavez, a simulated patient on the flight from the 205th Engineering and Installation Squadron at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base. “Not only did they do a great job on the go, but they also provided great patient care. All hands were on deck, and everyone was willing to help the other to care for the patients.”
Vigilant Guard is an annual exercise sponsored by U.S. Northern Command that rotates among states. This year’s exercise was held from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, 2017 and ran concurrently with the Oklahoma Office of Emergency Management’s annual Earth, Wind and Fire Exercise.