April 18, 2013

Wichita’s emergency responders prepared for disasters

There’s no way to predict when disaster will strike.

There’s no way to predict when disaster will strike.

But emergency responders can learn from the actions of others.

“I’m awed at the way Boston was able to do that and amazed with what happened in Texas,” said Diana Lippoldt, director of trauma, critical care and emergency preparedness at Wesley Medical Center.

“I feel for those hospitals and emergency personnel, especially in Texas, where they lost their own. That makes it a little more sobering – the death of anybody in a disaster is. But when you walk into a disaster to try to help and get killed, that’s hard to take.”

While it’s still too early to learn about the emergency response to the recent Boston bombings and explosion in Texas, Sedgwick County emergency management director Randy Duncan said emergency responders can access the Lessons Learned Information Sharing webpage.

As part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the site holds reports from incidents, detailing what went well and what could be improved.

“After action reports from Boston and West, Texas, come out, we will share that information amongst ourselves,” Duncan said.

In an effort to avoid sharing tactical information with potential terrorists, not all information collected is available to the public, Duncan said.

Continual preparation

Last week, Sedgwick County emergency management held a multiple-day simulation of a biological weapon of mass destruction event with more than 20 agencies and organizations.

“We’re practicing those in the background all the time with various scenarios,” Duncan said. “The purpose is for the agencies involved to have the opportunity to rehearse their roles and responsibilities in a non-emergency environment.”

In the event of a potential disaster, Duncan said they will largely rely on outdoor warning systems and the media to get information to the public.

He also said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radios are helpful for updates and can also be used for non-weather emergency warnings.

As part of the warning process, emergency management teams assess the situation and make suggestions for evacuation or staying in place, Duncan said.

At the Sedgwick County Emergency Operation Center, 714 N. Main, representatives from various agencies can meet during and after an emergency.

The center also houses the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, which aids in communication during emergencies. It was developed during the 1950s amid fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

According to the Kansas Hazard Mitigation Plan from 2010, some of the biggest hazards for Kansas are floods, tornadoes, major disease outbreaks, winter storms, hazardous materials and agricultural infestations.

The lowest ranked hazards are terrorism, agro-terrorism and civil disorder, dam and levee failures, radiological disasters and earthquakes.

Every county in the country is expected to have emergency management programs and managers, a product of 9/11. In large-scale disasters, state and federal disaster teams are called on for assistance.

‘What ifs?’

Carolyn Koehn, director of emergency management for Via Christi Hospitals and clinics, said they review disaster plans annually.

“We conduct an analysis of all of our locations with the Sedgwick County Emergency Management of all the things that could happen and get a snapshot of all the ‘What ifs?’ What if there is an explosion? A chemical spill? A tornado? And we look at the level of preparedness and the ability to respond.”

“We generally plan for the worst case scenario.”

Wesley’s Lippoldt said that in a mass casualty event, Wesley and St. Francis would get the majority of patients. Those two hospitals are the only level-one trauma centers in Kansas outside of the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City.

“When we talk about mass casualty, it’s an all-hospital event,” Lippoldt said. “Nobody doesn’t play.”

One potential issue in a large-scale disaster is that many patients will drive themselves to the nearest hospital, which may or may not be able to accommodate them.

She said it was good that Wichita had multiple hospitals so that if one hospital was affected by an event, patients would have other options.

“If something like the Joplin tornado happened (where one hospital took a direct hit), we’d still be all hands on deck,” Lippoldt said.

“Joplin, like Wichita, had an advantage with more than one hospital. In Greensburg, the hospital was destroyed, but they were able to have a makeshift triage center and transfer patients to other cities.”

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