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Tampa-Area Emergency Responders Meet Under 'Blue Skies' To Prepare For Disasters

Physicians and staff assess a mannequin
Jonah Hinebaugh/WUSF Public Media
Members of the yellow treatment team assess and decide which hospital the mannequin patient will go to during the evacuation exercise at Tampa International Airport on Thursday.

Tabletop exercises are never the same as setting up actual gurneys, transportation and the other logistics demanded by an emergency evacuation, according to Dr. Timothy McGuirk.

On Thursday, McGuirk and hundreds of other doctors, emergency responders and Florida Air National Guard members took part in a full-scale evacuation exercise at Tampa International Airport. Dubbed "Exercise Patriot South 20," the training aimed to test the joint coordination between the groups.

The James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital serves as the local Federal Coordination Center, or FCC, which holds training sessions like this across the country.

Two men carry a mannequin on a stretcher off a cargo airplane
Credit Jonah Hinebaugh/WUSF Public Media
Two members of the litter team transport an 'injured' hurricane victim off the cargo plane during the evacuation exercise on Thursday.

FCCs are locations that can be activated and receive patients when there's a presidental disaster declaration, according to organizer Richard Rhodes. 

Rhodes is the area emergency manager for the Veterans Health Administration. It was his fourth time putting an event like this on.

"One of the important things about doing these exercises is it gets our community partners together," he said. "We do these when skies are blue so we all know each other and know how things operate, so when a real tragedy happens, we're ready to respond and perform as best we can."

A hangar at the Sheltair Aviation Facility transformed to a staging area to receive patients, a mix of live actors and not-so-live mannequins, who were "injured" during a Category 4 hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

The hangar had four color-coded sections that patients were sent to depending on the severity of the injury. McGuirk's job as the medical lead was to assess the wounded when the cargo plane landed, then assist physicians and staff in treating them.

A National Guard member stands near an open airplane bay door
Credit Jonah Hinebaugh/WUSF Public Media
A member of the Florida Air National Guard directs litter team members to unload hurricane victims during the evacuation exercise at Tampa International Airport on Thursday.

"Training is very important," said McGuirk, the director for the emergency department at Haley Veterans' Hospital. "I did 20 years on active duty with the Navy and the motto of all services is 'You want to train like you fight.' You can do tabletop exercises, but it's never the same."

The litter team lined up outside of the aircraft and, when directed, came up in pairs to unload victims. Some mannequins had head wounds, others were treated for smoke inhalation.

In the hangar, groups of medical teams went person-to-person to assess and check vital signs. From there, they would decide whether the patient would take a six mile trip to Tampa General Hospital or was in such bad condition they needed to go to St. Joseph's Hospital only three miles away.

Two white buses were then loaded with the actors and mannequins for the ride to the respective hospitals.

"You learn a lot," McGuirk said. "You do things (or) things don't work quite as smoothly as you might like, then you learn and you reassess. The next time you have a real world episode, then you've learned from it and done some practice, so when the real things happens you're ready."

The last time the local FCC was put into operation was in 2010, when a magnitude 7 earthquake hit Haiti, Rhodes said.

"It could happen anytime," he added.

People in yellow and red vests stand, looking at a cargo plane
Credit Jonah Hinebaugh/WUSF Public Media
Doctors and staff wait outside of a hangar at Sheltair Aviation Facility to unload passengers of the cargo plane during a full-scale evacuation training exercise on Thursday.