Joint group serves as military's medical resource during disasters
Story and photo by Lisa R. Rhodes Staff writer
All it took was the ringing of a cell phone to get things moving. A suitcase, an airplane ticket and a few hours later, help was on the way.
It was Feb. 23, 2003, and Maj. Pamela Evans was shopping in Bowie when her cell phone rang. A federal official from the Department of Health and Human Services was on the line. Federal and local authorities needed help managing medical response to The Station nightclub fire in Warwick, R.I. The fire broke out two days before and left at least 96 people dead.
Evans, who was participating in a fellowship with the Office of Emergency Response in Rockville, rushed home, packed her suitcase, boarded a plane and headed for Providence, R.I., within just a few hours of the call.
When Evans arrived in Warwick, she joined the mortuary team and wrote daily reports on the crisis for health and human service authorities, as well as a demobilization plan for the phase out of authorities working on the case.
Today, Evans is the branch chief of the Joint Regional Medical Plans & Operations (JRMPO) office here. She heads a staff of two, Lt. Cmdr. Edward Kennedy, a Navy officer and Maj. Thomas Evans, an Air Force officer. The team responds to local, state and federal requests for Department of Defense (DoD) medical resources in the event of natural or man-made disasters.
"We do no war fighting. We do nothing overseas," said Kennedy. "We work to see how military medicine can help out in a disaster."
When Hurricane Charley struck Florida in August, the JRMPO office here relayed a request to DoD from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials for military obstetrics/gynecology nurses. Nurses with this specialty were not available at the local or state level, or within the FEMA network.
FEMA is the federal agency (now part of the Department of Homeland Security), that heads recovery efforts in national disasters. These disasters include hurricanes, fires, floods and other national hazards.
Immediately, DoD sent eight nurses from the Air Force and the Army to assist authorities for three weeks.
JRMPO operates under the auspices of U.S. Northern Command (U.S. Northcom), a single unified command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. The command is made up of military organizations that are charged with the nation's defense. U.S. Northcom is part of the Department of Defense (DoD).
JRMPO is divided into four regional offices that provide assistance to states within FEMA's jurisdiction. The three officers here are among 12 JRMPO officers nationwide.
Responding to natural hazards is only part of the job. The group also participates in emergency medical response planning for events such as the Democratic and Republican conventions, President Ronald Reagan's funeral and the opening of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The staff is now helping to organize the emergency medical response for the upcoming presidential inauguration.
For these events , the staff has two missions, Evans said. First, to plan and coordinate medical support for military personnel participating in the event. Secondly, to plan and prepare for any major catastrophe during the event.
But major emergencies like the fire in Warwick are the main tasks of the office. The staffers must be ready to travel to any part of the country when a disaster occurs, at any time of day or night. To keep abreast of such events, the staff stays tuned to CNN and keeps a suitcase packed. Each staffer also carries a laptop computer and a Blackberry communicator.
Evans, Kennedy and Walker said their job is challenging, but the rewards are plentiful. The staff said responding to the recent hurricanes in Florida and August was the most demanding assignment to date. However, they noted that comraderie, the chance to travel and the ability to help others makes their job worthwhile.
Col. Brian P. Foley
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