GREGG KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
First Lt. Joel Oyama, left, and Maj. Julie Sawyer monitor an "injured patient" during an exercise on a C-17 Globemaster cargo jet en route to an Air Force disaster relief hospital set up near the Kona Airport.
Disaster response put to test
A weeklong exercise gives medical teams chances to hone skills
KONA » Within 48 hours after assessing the damage caused by the 120-knot winds of a super typhoon which swept through the Pacific island country of "Moku," the Air Force had erected a tent city and was ready with a team of 12 doctors, 20 nurses and other medical specialists.
More than 2,000 residents of the Pacific nation, about the size of the Big Island, had been killed and an equal number needed immediate medical attention.
Once a determination was made where the base camp would be located, specialists from the Air Force's Contingency Response Group began arriving, erecting tents, hooking up generators for power, establishing communication links, securing water sources and establishing a defense force.
They were followed by Air Force Expeditionary Medical Support teams of doctors, nurses, lab technicians and other medical specialists who would provide the necessary health care.
Such a massive civilian humanitarian relief effort by the Air Force was the focus of a week-long exercise held on three islands that ended yesterday. It involved nearly 1,000 active duty Air Force personnel, reservists, Hawaii Air National Guard specialists, Army soldiers and civilians. They were supported by two C-5C Galaxy, three Globemaster C-17 and C-130 cargo jets.
Kauai's Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands and Hickam Air Force Base were used as staging areas where injured civilians were collected and then flown to the Air Force's humanitarian relief center of 57 tents located a half mile from the terminals at Kona Airport.
The $1.9 million exercise was dubbed Pacific Lifeline and was developed in response to some of the shortfalls that occurred in the Pacific Command's efforts to provide humanitarian relief following the deadly 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 12 countries.
Col. Kevin Kersh, who normally commands the 36th Contingency Response Group in Guam and served as the head of the Pacific Lifeline exercise, said the Indonesia tsunami and the cyclone that killed more than 3,000 in Bangladesh in November showed that "rapid response was the only way to mitigate loss of life."
He said last week's exercise was the first time the Air Force had sent out its rapid deployment unit to support a medical facility. It was a culmination of three months of planning. The Air Force's Contingency Response Group, whose members are required to deploy within 12 hours, is the "first in" force unit whose job is to secure and operate a foreign airfield.
Kersh said a similar humanitarian relief effort could be used domestically to respond to the natural disaster that occurred in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
Lt. Gen. Loyd "Chip" Utterback, 13th Air Force commander, called the exercise a success.
He said the Air Force is ready to use this new concept to respond to any humanitarian assistance or disaster relief in the Pacific.
Col. Nicholas Miniotis, commander of the Expeditionary Medical Support teams, said this week's exercise was also the first time that pediatricians and obstetricians were deployed.
Miniotis said the medical facility here included an operating room capable of supporting 10 surgeries a day and a hospital ward that could house six to eight patients.
Lt. Col. Pat Poon, vice commander of the 36th Contingency Response Group, said, "What the Air Force does better than any other service is that we provide speed."
During the exercise 146 Air Force reservists belonging to the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron from McCord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash., treated the mannequin patients that were flown from Hickam and Barking Sands to Kona.
Maj. Barry Vansickle, who headed the patient insertion team, said his five aeromedical crews flew three to four missions daily.
During the flights to Kona this week, the patient mannequins were connected to ventilators or other medical equipment and their vital signs monitored by the reservists.
Vansickle said the reservists also went through evaluation tests that they need to take every 17 months.
After landing at Kona, patients on stretchers were taken to the medical facility, diagnosed and treated.