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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Air forces hold first disaster-aid exercise

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Disaster Drill
Video: Air Force assesses transport ability in disaster

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Staff Sgt. Darlena Martens, left, and 1st Lt. Joel Oyama, right, discuss their mannequin “patient” while Senior Master Sgt. Saudi McVea takes notes aboard an Air Force aircraft during Pacific Lifeline ’08, which is taking place on O'ahu, Kaua'i and the Big Island.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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KONA, Hawai'i — In one training scenario, a pregnant woman was bleeding from injuries received in a super typhoon, and couldn't find her husband. There were injured children separated from their parents.

Air Force medical units are accustomed to supporting a fighter wing in a foreign country, and air evacuating wounded troops from war.

But those are U.S. service members, and the Air Force has familiarity with their needs. Now, there's a new focus on civilian needs in the Pacific in the form of humanitarian assistance.

Pacific Air Forces is wrapping up its first-ever disaster relief exercise, an approximately three-week effort involving nearly 900 Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard and active duty personnel.

Pacific Lifeline '08, running through Saturday, simulated a super typhoon that devastated the notional Pacific island nation of Moku, killing 2,000 and injuring a similar number on North, Central and South islands.

For the exercise, Hickam Air Force Base, Barking Sands on Kaua'i and Kona International Airport were utilized.

A small city of 57 tents, including medical facilities, housing and support, was transported on two C-5 Galaxy and three C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft, and set up at Kona.

Speed is the key for the relief effort, with an assessment team having 24 hours to determine needs, and the goal of having a running medical facility in several days.

"This would be a capability that the Air Force has not used operationally in this theater in recent history," said Col. Kevin Kersh, who heads up the exercise and commands the 36th Contingency Response Group out of Guam.


There are a number of recent real-world examples where those skills could have been used, and Pacific Lifeline is a test-bed for that capability.

A 2004 earthquake off Indonesia triggered a tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 12 countries, while in November, Cyclone Sidr killed more than 3,000 and left millions homeless in Bangladesh.

"As we've seen in recent history in this theater, we never know when the next disaster is going to occur," Kersh said.

A 2007 review of the U.S. military's response to the 2004 tsunami found that U.S. Pacific Command's unfamiliarity with humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions reduced initial response efficiency.

Lt. Col. Pat Poon, who also is involved with the Pacific Lifeline exercise, said with its cargo jets, "what we (in the Air Force) do is provide speed."

The exercise, which cost $1.9 million excluding air costs, involved a mix of about 60 percent Air Force Reserve troops and Air National Guard personnel, and 40 percent active duty. Some 70 units contributed participants. About 50 Air Force personnel came from Hickam.

Yesterday, five mannequin "patients" were loaded onto gurneys bolted to the floor of a C-17 cargo aircraft at Hickam and flown to Barking Sands.

En route, they were connected to oxygen, ventilators and other medial equipment, and two flight nurses and three emergency medical technicians provided treatment, which was monitored and evaluated.

"We try to make it as realistic as possible without putting a real-life patient in there," said Maj. Barry Van Sickle, the officer in charge of the "patient insertion team" and a reservist out of McChord Air Force Base in Washington state.

In the medical tent complex at Kona, stretchers with mannequins representing wounded were carried to various stations in the cavelike complex.

In one operating room, a medical staff member was screwing metal rods into a mangled lower leg to fix the bone in place. In another, a pregnant mannequin was giving birth. The medical facility can be scaled to fit the disaster.

Staff Sgt. Andrews Adinig, 32, who is from the Philippines and with the active-duty 15th Services Squadron at Hickam, was involved in the food service operation at Kona, but liked being part of the humanitarian assistance practice.

"I think that's really awesome," he said, "because anywhere we go, we can touch people's lives."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.