Air Force Medical Service Works Around Challenges
By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16, 2010 The military has a well-known knack for building modern facilities in remote locations to support servicemembers. In the wake of disasters like this week’s earthquake in the Caribbean, the services have stepped up to use their deployable assets, especially hospitals, to help Haitians.
Airmen from the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla., offload injured people in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 15, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Russell E. Cooley IV
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Col. Mark Mavity, chief of medical readiness for the Air Force surgeon general, discussed the Air Force Medical Service’s deployable capabilities and how they can be used to help the people of Haiti in a “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable today.
The primary capabilities the Air Force is concerned with in Haiti, Mavity said, are primary and preventive care, surgical capability and some intensive holding capacity. The footprint is small, he said, with at most perhaps 25 beds available. The idea, he said, is to get the patients stable enough to be moved to a location where they can be better treated.
Mavity said though eight of Haiti’s hospitals were damaged to the point of inoperability, the majority of their medical facilities are up and running, though they’re strained by the volume of injuries that need to be treated.
“The capabilities of those facilities, even before the earthquake, were very limited in their capacity – both in size and in availability of equipment and medications,” he said. “[Now] they’re being overwhelmed by the demand.”
It’s difficult to set up hospitals and bases on the island, Mavity said, because the earthquake damaged what little open space was left. So while components are setting up at the airport in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince, they’re quickly running out of room.
Getting services out to other cities on the island, where the damage, in some cases, is worse, has been one of the biggest challenge for first responders from the Air Force, Mavity said. The nature of their capability -- quick stabilizing response and patient movement -- makes the airport an ideal location, especially because the medical facilities are so stripped down. The size of the operation does allow for flexibility in operating farther from the airport, he said, but there are special challenges related to that. Power and water supplies, shelter for troops, force protection and vehicles aren’t an “organic” asset for the medical stations, so they have to rely on other military or other agencies’ infrastructure, the colonel explained. They can’t operate independently wherever they want to set up shop.
“The difficulty is, because our platforms are so light and lean, we are very dependent. … We have to be married with some base operating support elements,” he said. “That begins to play into the algebra of where we can actually put [facilities].”
Mavity said the personnel on the ground in Haiti, in addition to beginning medical relief efforts, also are looking forward to seeing how best to work around the issue of location, and how best to create the “air bridge” that will connect their first-response facilities to better-equipped hospitals, such as the Navy’s hospital ship USNS Comfort, which is en route.
“Some of those folks are working the whole command-and-control elements and site assessment, as well as being very helpful in the initial discussions with our [Air Mobility Command] and [U.S. Transportation Command] folks to start thinking about how best to build this air bridge for patient movement, and exactly how much we’ll need, and what kind of folks we’re going to need to get that done effectively,” Mavity said. “I can’t thank those folks enough for the fantastic job they’ve done.”
As the initial team and additional forces combine, they’ll work to get the best of their capabilities, and hope to move some assets into the cities, where they can help more people, Mavity said.
“The Air Force Medical Service has that very unique ability to get the right care to the right people in a very short amount of time,” he said. “I think we’re doing a fantastic job of that, and we’ll continue to do so over the days and weeks to follow.”
(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)