TACOMA, Wash. — Dozens of Army doctors and nurses experienced in keeping combat-wounded soldiers alive in war zones tested themselves Tuesday against an almost unthinkable disaster at home.
They participated in the South Sound leg of a disaster exercise based on the Good Friday earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 100 people in Alaska 50 years ago.
Back then, Alaskan officials relied on active-duty and National Guard soldiers to care for injured people and to get the state working again. This time, the state of Alaska, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military are practicing how they’d respond together.
For the most part, it’s familiar territory to Army medical staffers who train to handle mass-casualty events in combat.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” said Iraq veteran Capt. Rebecca Lee of Madigan Army Medical Center. “That’s the nice thing about being an Army nurse: You learn how to improvise.”
The exercise, called Alaska Shield 2014, kicked off over the weekend with Alaskan communities simulating their probable responses to a 9.2 earthquake similar to the one that hit the state March 27, 1964. They prepared for aftershocks, communications blackouts and severe casualties.
Soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord are participating in a couple ways. The base’s chief logistics unit, the 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, has soldiers in Alaska this week training for how they might deliver supplies to civilian communities in the wake of a natural disaster.
The local Army medical staff, meanwhile, comes in at a point when the Alaska governor requests more federal support to care for injured residents.
If that were to unfold, the military would gather fairly stable patients and fly them to the Puget Sound area for medical attention. That would clear space in Alaska hospitals for the most urgent patients, said Lt. Col. Michael Moyle, who helped plan the exercise for Madigan.
This kind of disaster would be of a much larger scale than the March 22 mudslide in Oso. The active-duty military would get involved only if a state requests it because the state’s own resources are overwhelmed, said Jennifer Lord, the training and exercise manager for the Northwest Healthcare Response Network.
The exercise was meant to test McChord’s role in the Defense Department’s National Disaster Medical System, which gives the air field a certification as a casualty collection point.
Pierce County’s civilian hospitals also played a role by receiving some “surge” patients from the military flights.
The process began when Air Force C-130 transport planes landed at McChord Air Field with dummies that represented 35 or more patients injured by the earthquake. The plane’s crew handed medical records to Army nurses on the ground, and active-duty soldiers played the part of patients receiving care.
Nurses checked the patients and assigned them to hospitals from a group that included Madigan, Western State Hospital, and the MultiCare and Franciscan networks. They were assigned based on their medical needs and the availability of beds. Civilian medics took patients away to hospitals in ambulances.
In many cases, the soldiers participating as caregivers found that keeping track of the paperwork was the toughest part.
“Stacks are scary,” said Sgt. Sarah Lathrop, referring to the pile of records that came off the first plane.
In coming years, Washington is expected to flip its role in a multistate disaster exercise. It would be the one to suffer a catastrophic earthquake and send its injured to another state, Moyle said.