FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas - A seamless medical response to a disaster won't happen unless a multitude of agencies share a common language and a common understanding of how the others operate.
To accomplish this, the Homeland Security Medical Executive Course brings together medical professionals from local, state and federal agencies to help increase that understanding before disaster strikes.
Members of United States Army North were among the military and civilian attendees of the most recent course, held during an early December blizzard in a downtown Minneapolis hotel.
Fred Watke, an Army North medical planner said he did not attend the course expecting to hear a lot of technical detail. Instead, he was looking forward to the interaction with the other services and those in the "whole strata of the civil support environment."
Because his office is responsible for coordinating many aspects of military medical support following disaster, Watke said he and his fellow Army planners tend to look at a disaster response holistically.
"A course like this allows me to learn a lot about how the local and state responders view things and what they expect from us," he said. "This is also an opportunity to reassure them so they know the military is not going to take over a response, but we'll be there to provide them with what they ask for."
Col. Christopher Fulton, Army North's newest defense coordinating officer, took advantage of an opportunity to address the group. In the three months he's been in the job for Region V, Fulton said he's learned that civil support is a very complicated business and encouraged local and state responders to become well acquainted with the military emergency preparedness liaison officers in their states and regions.
"Establishing these relationships and knowing the capabilities each agency brings to the response are essential before a disaster occurs," he said.
The course is offered several times per year at locations throughout the country, said Navy Lt. Claude Long, the course's officer in charge of the course, who noted that the 80 attendees included health care professionals from the active and reserve components of the Army, the National Guard, the Navy and the Air Force.
Others hailed from various states, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Public Health Service, among many other agencies.
The course uses large group lectures to introduce concepts - such as medical evacuation or communicating medical information to an affected population - and then encourages the attendees to discuss them in a facilitated small-group setting.
The course was originally created to fill a gap in training to respond to incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives, or CBRNE, said Long.
"There was a lot of training out there on topics like how to respond to a mass casualty event or how to conduct decontamination, but there was no umbrella course that taught the overarching response from the medical perspective," said Long.
Upon returning to the Training Institute on Fort Sam Houston, Long said he would like to develop additional modules tailored specifically to military medical response during civil support operations.
As for this course, Aggie Leitheiser, the director of emergency preparedness for the Minnesota Department of Health, said it met her expectations and that she learned a lot about military medical capabilities and how the system works.
"The depth and breadth of experience of the people in this course was impressive," she said. "The small-group exercises allowed us to take and apply the concepts to a situation so everyone can better understand the interplay between civilian and military responders."
The next course is scheduled for June in Tacoma, Wash. Those interested in other course offerings can visit:

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. - Col. Christopher Fulton, an Army North defense coordinating officer, addresses attendees of the Homeland Security Medical Executive Course in Minneapolis Dec. 9.
(U.S. Army photo by Patti Bielling, U.S. Army North PAO)