story by Traci Chapman, Staff Writer
Ten nurses were part of a 41-member contingent of Oklahoma Air National Guard 137th Special Operations Wing airmen who last week traveled to Texas to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
“What we’re doing today is responding to an assistance agreement that we have with our brothers and sisters in Texas to bring aid to those in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana,” said Col. Devin R. Wooden, 137th Special Operations Wing Commander, as airmen boarded their flights. “We will be there as long as they need us.”
Airmen were deployed to Texas after officials with Texas Emergency Management enacted the Emergency Assistance Compact, requesting assistance from any military and civilian units that could lend it, Wooden said. The 137th Special Operations Wing is partnering with Texas Air National Guard medical units while they help with hurricane relief efforts, said Col. Keith Reed, the 137th’s Special Operations Medical Group Commander.
Among the medical personnel serving at the Will Rogers Oklahoma National Guard Base and assisting in the Texas relief efforts are advanced practice registered nurses and aerospace medical service specialists. APRNs in a sense provide the same kind of care as public health nurses – but, instead of caring for a specific population or group on a long-term basis, APRNs, along with aerospace medical service specialists, provide care to areas impacted by a natural disaster or other relatively short-term problem. This includes preventive care that could help save lives down the road, Reed said.
Also part of the effort and assigned to Will Rogers’ 137th Strategic Wing Command are AMS specialists. These highly trained medical professionals are described as “medical jacks of all trades,” airmen who performs a wide range of nursing duties – from things like delivering babies and prepping patients for surgery to drawing blood, taking vital signs and administering medication. AMS specialists also train for the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technician’s examination.
Nurses and fellow medical professionals are assigned to two wings of the 137th Special Operations Wing – the 137th Special Operations Medical Group and the 137th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.
“The medical group will assist with hospital and nursing home patient evacuation from the Houston area,” Reed said. “Our En Route Patient Staging System includes equipment and medical personnel specially trained to stage and prepare patients for military air transport to facilities outside the affected area.”
SOMG airmen stabilize patients on the ground, ensuring they are able to physically withstand transport; once patients are on the plane, the aeromedical evacuation squadron takes over, Reed said, caring for patients during their transport to a hospital outside the hurricane zone. Officials were not yet sure whether all patients would be taken to facilities in north Texas, or if it would be necessary to fly some to other states because of what they called the unprecedented number of people needing assistance.
“When in Texas, the two groups will work together,” Reed said. “They will be split up into teams of five and help evacuate hospitals, nursing homes, VA hospitals and facilities where patients cannot fend for themselves – these are individuals who have been identified as having the most critical need for help, treatment and care.”
Agencies and units cannot provide aid to another state until someone triggers an EMAC request, said Col. Hiram Tabler, OKARNG director of military support. It is a violation of both federal law and military regulations to self-deploy any unit outside the confines of its home state, he said. That doesn’t mean OKARNG personnel weren’t ready when the call came in, Tabler said. In fact, units across the country immediately went into watch mode as the hurricane became more deadly and dangerous – and as the need for assistance became increasingly evident, officials said.
“Anytime we have severe weather that impacts our state or neighboring states, our job is to be prepared to provide support,” Tabler said.
Experts are calling Hurricane Harvey one of the worst – if not the worst – storm to ever hit the United States. Leaving in its wake 35 dead and thousands injured and/or homeless, the hurricane posed so many difficulties because of how long it stalled over Houston and other Texas coastal areas. To make matters worse, it created more havoc after it was downgraded to a tropical storm – and once again made landfall.
Beyond the sheer amount of water – and victims – confronting rescuers, efforts have been hampered by a series of related issues, the most recent a Houston chemical plant damaged after 40 inches of water flooded the facility. Officials on Friday were concerned the plant might catch fire or explode. Refineries in the area were also flooded, impacting about 4.2 million barrels of oil, pushing up gasoline prices about 16 percent, officials said.
“There is so much to this – and while all of these difficulties continue, it looks like we may see another storm, this time possibly a cyclone, come in and bring more rain,” National Hurricane Center officials said Friday.
Airmen from the 137th SOW last deployed domestically in the aftermath of the May 20, 2013 Oklahoma tornadoes, Tabler said. It was not known as of press time how long airmen would remain in Texas assisting in relief efforts.