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(NECN: Jack Thurston, Jay, Vt.) - The message Thursday from the vice-chair for emergency preparedness at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital to EMS workers in Vermont was clear:
"Disasters can happen without warning, at any time, and really, anywhere," warned Dr. Paul Biddinger.
Biddinger's team at Mass General faced a crush of critical patients following the twin bomb explosions during the Boston Marathon.
"Triage has to be brief," Biddinger told the statewide EMS and Healthcare Preparedness Conference at the Jay Peak Resort. "At least 20 people are alive today, because EMS (leapt into action) right away."
Biddinger's message for hospitals was to have an emergency plan that takes into account many variables, like needing to clear patients from rooms to make way for new ones coming in. Hospitals should also ask themselves what happens if their facility needs to be evacuated, and how to ramp up staff if crisis strikes when personnel levels are low. As important as having a plan, Biddinger said, is practicing it regularly.
As for EMS personnel in the field, Biddinger praised quick communication from Boston ambulance crews to ERs just minutes after the blasts. That helped avoid hospital overload, he explained. Biddinger advised that in a mass trauma situation, overwhelmed first responders should not be shy to enlist bystanders to help.
"'Everybody! Put pressure on something if you see it bleeding,'" Biddinger suggested crews tell capable onlookers. "'If you can't stop the bleeding, do a tourniquet.' Teach them how to do a tourniquet," said Biddinger.
Debra Bach, the director of emergency services for the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, said her challenges anticipating a mass casualty event would be prioritizing treatment, dealing with limited resources at a small facility, and identifying help from other hospitals, which could require helicopter transfers.
"We all have to be prepared," Bach said. "(The Boston Marathon bombings) made me stop and think, 'How would we deal with an incident that brought even a dozen people to our facility? Could we deal with it? And what do we need to make sure we could if it did happen to us?'"
Actual emergencies are increasingly shaping preparedness training, said Chris Bell of the Vt. Health Dept. Bell, the state's EMS director, told New England Cable News the most effective drills and training sessions for first responders in recent years seem to be the ones with roots in real-life crises like the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn. or the tornados that ravaged Joplin, Mo.
"It feels more real," Bell said of teaching based in reality, not theory. "The lesson gets learned."
Lessons likes the ones emerging from the Boston Marathon bombings are certainly events no one wants to see come true for any community, but the EMS conference attendees know they're learning opportunities they can't afford to ignore.