But in those first few days, that response to the massive devastation from the quake-triggered tsunami was stymied by military medical units too big to move quickly, Air Force officials now say.
“We couldn’t get out the door small enough and fast enough to make a difference,” said Air Force Col. Wayne Pritt, the command surgeon of the 13th Air Force at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
Even with improvements made in the years following the tsunami, it still was taking at least seven C-17 cargo planes as much as a week to get the Air Force’s primary medical response team — with its 900 members — off the ground, Pritt and others said.
This summer, however, the Air Force tested a new concept that puts two planes with more than two dozen medical staff in the air within 24 hours, according to Pritt.
It also includes support staff so the team has everything needed to set up an airfield, secure an area, build a medical clinic and begin treating patients — all within six hours of landing, Pritt said.
The Air Force spent $1.2 million on medical equipment and training to set up HARRT, the Humanitarian Assistance Rapid Response Team, at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, Pritt said.
Most of the team’s 54 members come from a combination of Andersen’s 36th Medical Group and 36th Contingency Response Group. The latter unit is comprised of airmen who build and secure an airstrip. Eleven members come from the 374th Medical Group at Yokota Air Base, Japan.
There was discussion earlier this month about whether to send the team to Taiwan after Typhoon Morakot hit. The military responds to humanitarian disasters only at the request of the U.S. State Department, which negotiates directly with the affected countries to find out what aid is wanted. In the end, PACOM officials sent Marines to help instead, Pritt said by e-mail this week.
The team can see 250 to 350 patients a day for five days before needing more supplies and replacement staff, according to Maj. Angela Thompson, a medical readiness planner with Pritt’s office. The team is set to provide general care, but it can be augmented to specialize in pediatrics, surgery or obstetrics as needed, Pritt said.
The unit is meant to supplement rather than supplant other countries’ medical systems, another lesson learned from past responses, Pritt said. In other crises, he said, the rush to help has sometimes “overwhelmed and undermined the local health care system.”
Last month, the team tested the concept on Guam, from where it would deploy in a real crisis. While Andersen has no cargo planes of its own, Pritt said that’s not a problem. In a disaster, the planes could come from anywhere in the Pacific or even from bases in the States, he said.
Early next month, the unit will test a real-time deployment on Chuuk, an island in the Federated States of Micronesia. Instead of providing triage care, the team will deploy from Guam and provide basic health care for three days, Thompson said.
Pritt and others hope the team is replicated at other Air Force commands in the world. For now, Pritt said, the team is ready to deploy.
“We’re in the Pacific,” he said. “We have earthquakes, tsunamis. It’s not if. It’s when.”
By Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes