Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Saturday, June 22, 2013
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Hospital's hurricane drill is well-oiled
'Patients' evacuated via C-130s at Boca Chica Field

Lower Keys Medical Center emergency room manager Sandy Rodriguez recalled the busy 2005 hurricane season Friday as bodies were spread out before her on the terminal floor at Naval Air Station Key West.

The "patients" were actually members of the North Carolina Air National Guard 156th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, in Key West to take part in the hospital's hurricane evacuation drill.

They were prepped to be carried by Monroe County Fire Rescue crews, hospital staff and airmen onto a C-130 transport plane on the tarmac.

Rodriguez remembered doing it for real when four named storms hit the Florida Keys in five weeks in 2005.

"It's much less chaotic in real life, actually," Rodriguez said. "Everything is very organized and systematic."

The annual drill has become so well-oiled that nurses, emergency room doctors, flight physicians, pilots and airmen can load planes in minutes once patients arrive at Boca Chica Field, said Phyllis Stout, the surgical services director at LKMC.

"These would all be patients that can't be discharged early or sent out on land by ambulance," Stout said. "For example, someone coming out of surgery couldn't be discharged, or someone with pneumonia, or heart attack patients -- people who are too ill to be discharged, but not those in intensive care."

Those in ICU would most likely be airlifted via helicopter prior to the plane evacuations, Stout explained. Those leaving in the C-130s most likely would end up in hospitals in Sebring, but could also be sent to Georgia or Louisiana.

Overseeing the drill Friday was commander of the 156th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Lt. Col. Susan Martello of Belmont, N.C. Martello has been taking part in these annual drills for more than 10 years.

The air wing can fit as many as 90 patients in one aircraft if needed, Martello said.

So why the North Carolina Air National Guard and not Florida's?

Martello's answer was simple.

"Your National Guard is going to be busy doing many things during a hurricane," she said, smiling. "We're here to help."

Martello added that her command also returns patients to Key West after the storm.

"It's such an important mission; it always amazes how well it (the drill) goes," Martello said.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 1. So far, there have been two named storms in the Atlantic Ocean, Tropical Storm Andrea on June 5 and Tropical Storm Barry on June 20.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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