CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – Lt. Col. Bruce Simpson, the Headquarters Washington Air National Guard’s director of force support, started his fight against COVID-19 by supporting the Grand Princess cruise ship quarantine on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, in March.
By early April he was on a different COVID-19 mission: supporting the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
The medical examiner needed help with the overwhelming number of COVID-19 fatalities, said Simpson. Overflow morgue facilities had been set up around the city to address the increasing numbers, and they needed people to help staff them.
As a civilian, Simpson serves as a part-time medicolegal investigator within the Health and Human Services Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team or DMORT. According to HHS, DMORTs are deployed at the request of local authorities to quickly and accurately identify victims and support local mortuary services.
“When people die in mass fatality events, their family members have a real need to have their loved ones treated in a professional, dignified and timely manner,” Simpson said. “It takes a large and diverse team to handle the many different aspects of crisis recovery.”
Simpson was part of the first DMORT rotation in New York. The team split up to the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. He spent his first week at a Manhattan overflow facility working as a night shift supervisor for intake, identification, tracking and cold storage operations.
“I was amazed at how the large OCME overflow facility where I worked was built in five days,” he said. “Picture a place where many refrigerated semitrailers are parked with a large loading dock and a big tent-style work facility with full HVAC, lighting, computer networks. The bulk of it was built in two days and then by five days, it was fully operational.”
After a week working in Manhattan, Simpson transferred to Brooklyn to work at an overflow morgue operation in a converted warehouse.
While helping the OCME in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Simpson also worked with military service members, including New York Army National Guard mortuary affairs specialists and combat engineering teams. Military mortuary affairs specialists are trained to work with fatalities but combat engineers are not. Simpson took this as an opportunity to mentor the engineers through a difficult situation.
“They didn’t have any experience with this type of situation, so I basically prepped them with pre-incident stress talks. They did well,” he said.
Simpson noted that his military experience helps when he’s coordinating with the National Guard in his DMORT role. Frank Sebastian, team commander of FEMA Region 10 DMORT, agreed and said that Simpson’s military leadership experience enhances the effectiveness of DMORT when responding to a mass casualty event.
“We operate under the Incident Command System protocols, a very directed chain of command. I think having that knowledge as well as being a leader in the military is a great transference of skills,” Sebastian said.
Sebastian and Simpson have worked together on DMORT since 2013. COVID-19 was one of many crises they have responded to throughout their time on DMORT. For some of these responses, Simpson wore the military uniform; for others, he wore the khaki HHS uniform.
In 2014, he was in military uniform for a landslide near Oso. “In 2017, I deployed to Florida and Puerto Rico for HHS missions after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and I deployed this year to San Diego to assist with an HHS DMAT (Disaster Medical Assistance Team) medical quarantine mission.”
“I am simply glad that I can do my part to help take some of the stress out of very challenging situations,” Simpson added.
The opportunity to join the HHS DMORT came about due to Simpson’s military experience.
After serving on active duty for eight years, Simpson joined the Air Force Reserve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he commanded a specialized Air Force services team that frequently deployed to the Defense Department’s Aerial Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. That is where he first gained experience working in the mass fatality response environment.
When he started in his current position with the WA ANG as a military liaison to civil authorities for the Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 10, Simpson hosted joint training events with civil and military authorities, to include mass fatality exercises and mission briefs.
“For several years, I was conducting joint training events at Camp Murray where I would bring together representatives from FSRT, King County, Pierce County, Portland, DMORT, Public Health Service, and Department of Health,” he said. “After we had done this for a couple years, the DMORT representative said, ‘You know, you’re really knowledgeable, you should think about joining DMORT. If there’s a crisis, you just figure out which uniform you’re going to put on.’”
After accepting the challenge, Simpson needed additional hands-on medical examiner training to apply for the position.
“Because I had a lot of prior experience at the Dover Port Mortuary, I already understood the basics of autopsies and how the military takes care of its combat fatalities,” he said. “So, then that helped open the door for me to train with the King County Medical Examiner’s office every year.”
Since 2010, Simpson has teamed with the King County Medical Examiner’s Office to learn and maintain proficiency as an on-scene medicolegal death investigator. The main responsibility of every coroner and medical examiner is determining the cause of death, Simpson said.
“That was a great qualifier for Bruce’s position with DMORT as a medicolegal investigator. You have to have some experience and training in medical-legal investigation,” Sebastian said.
While keeping his skills sharp, Simpson has built a relationship that is also beneficial for the Washington National Guard. It’s similar to what he learned during the joint training sessions he hosted at Camp Murray.
“If a major disaster happens in our region, like a large earthquake, it’s going to be massive and overwhelming,” he said. “You’re going to rely on the connections that you already have to just pick up where you left off and get going. I will be an extension of them to help military folks and understand what the needs are.”
Simpson and his senior enlisted team have also set up training relationships with the Pierce County, Spokane County and Oregon State medical examiners. This enabled his team and FSRT members in Washington and Oregon to collaborate with civil authorities and receive valuable training opportunities.
He doesn’t know where he’ll go next, but Simpson is always on call to respond to disasters nationwide or at home.
“Bruce has been a great asset to the team, a great asset to the folks we serve and the American public in a time of disaster,” Sebastian said.