FORD ISLAND, Hawaii (July, 12, 2018) -- The Pacific is a hotbed for natural disasters, ranging from earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, and floods. Maintaining and enhancing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) capabilities is vital to the stability of the region and requires close work with U.S., international partner governments and private sector agencies.
The U.S. Navy's Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, accomplishes just that -- bringing together key players in complex scenarios in the world's largest international maritime exercise.
During the biennial exercise, 25 nations, 46 surface ships, five submarines, 17 national land forces, and more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel test a wide range of capabilities ranging from disaster relief and maritime security operations to sea control and complex warfighting.
Regional Health Command-Pacific (RHC-P), the Army's medical directorate in a geographically diverse area of operation, is participating in the HA/DR statewide medical response portion of the exercise, which runs July 9-17, and is designed to enhance operability, test communication and exercise crisis response capabilities amongst interagency partners.
"A lot of people unfortunately think RIMPAC is just a war exercise and that's not all it does. It does so much more. The humanitarian assistance disaster relief part is big. This gives us a chance to practice as a statewide organization to work with our partners and assets that we really don't have access to outside of RIMPAC," said Chris Crabtree, Hawaii Healthcare Emergency Management Coalition director, who is also the lead for the 50 bed hospital system during RIMPAC.
A wide community of interest validates participants from the United Nations, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academia, and aids Hawaii-based Department of Defense and medical facilities in their statewide mass casualty drills and certifications.
"This is the 26th iteration of RIMPAC and every year we keep getting better and better," said RHC-P Emergency Manager and RIMPAC lead, Tom Bookman. "This isn't a tabletop exercise. We are actually operating aeromedical, ground and sea patient movements to 27 military and civilian hospitals spread out across six Hawaii islands and over to Washington State as well," Bookman said.
In addition to the Ford Island exercise action, Federal Coordinating Centers at Madigan Army Medical Center, located at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington State, as well as Tripler Army Medical Center, in Hawaii, actively participated with receiving patient actors at emergency departments at each location, to include U.S. Army Health Clinic-Schofield Barracks, in Hawaii. "It's impressive to see the skills being displayed as our Army medical professionals respond to realistic mock mass casualties, aftershocks, extensive infrastructure damage and beyond," Bookman said. "We hope to never have to use this training but the reality is, given the climate in the Pacific, it's not a matter of if a natural disaster will impact the Pacific but when," he added.
Bookman also reiterated the importance of maintaining relationships with the State of Hawaii, sister services, and the international community. "We aren't waiting until an actual disaster before we start forging and reinforcing working relationships. We are doing that now because if you wait…it's too late and lives can be lost" he added.
Crabtree echoed those sentiments emphasizing the challenge living on an island brings to disaster response. "Should the worst happen, you are never going to have enough supplies. No matter how much you stockpile. If a real world event cuts off our supply chain, we are on our own for healthcare. Through the coalition, which consists of over 160 healthcare organizations statewide, to include Regional Health Command-Pacific, we are able to leverage all of our resources together to support the system as a whole to minimize the impact on the community. That's part of what we are working through here," Crabtree added.
Crabtree also assessed that the exercise would yield ongoing benefits for years to come. "This gives us a chance to take our plan and break it so we can see where the weak points are and fix it. Then it's that much better so if a real event does occur we are ready or more ready than before," said Crabtree.
This is also the first year that Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), local level response efforts located in Ewa Beach and Kailua, participated in RIMPAC. Due to the fact that the communities were cut off by road during the simulated disaster, exercise planners wanted to include those CERTs into the medical scenario. "We coordinated with the Hawaii Park System to fly military helicopters to Ewa Beach and Kailua parks to recover mock casualties from these two locations via military helicopters. The local CERT teams conducted both triage and treatments on the ground," Bookman said.
About RHC-P: RHC-P's mission is providing Combatant Commanders with medically ready forces and ready medical forces conducting health service support in all phases of military operation.