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Disaster Circus:
A New Model for Disaster Response

by Joseph T. DePaolo

The author is a police communications officer for the city of DeRidder, La. He is a retired Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller and a former lieutenant colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, where he specialized in disaster planning.

Fire. Flood. Explosion. Tidal wave. Radiological incident. Civil disturbance. Poisonous gas leak. Auditorium grandstand collapse. Aircraft crash. Train crash. Earthquake.

The potential for a mass casualty incident lies anywhere large numbers of people can and do gather. Every community faces this risk and must be prepared for disaster, taking into account that disaster casualties might exceed the capacity of hospitals in the immediate vicinity.

Hospitals, communities and emergency managers also should plan for the possibility that a disaster may even destroy a local hospital, complicating care of current patients and creating additional disaster victims. A disaster often requires outside help, and communities should be prepared for this contingency. Considerations include mass casualty triage, coordinated casualty flow, logistic and personnel support, and transfer of casualties to supporting hospitals. Every hospital should be able to access resources beyond its own immediate area to supplement its own operations.

General Aviation to the Rescue

General aviation aircraft are a valuable component of any disaster contingency plan. Disasters devastate the transportation infrastructure, sometimes causing fissures in roadways, covering large areas with debris and inhibiting ground transportation. Aircraft therefore provide the best -- and sometimes the only -- assistance.

General aviation aircraft are those that do not fall into the military, commercial airline or corporate categories. General aviation resources enjoyed some recognition in the years following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The nation at that time experienced a renewed interest in civil defense and national emergency preparedness. The U.S. Office of Civil Defense, the U.S. Civil Aviation Authority and the U.S. Air Force coordinated plans to use general aviation aircraft for emergency purposes.

General aviation aircraft reportedly airlifted medical supplies, food and personnel into earthquake-stricken areas following California's tremendous 1989 earthquake. This type of disaster response has a name: State and Regional Disaster Airlift, or SARDA.

SARDA has existed in some form for quite a while. So long as airplanes have flown, pilots have been willing to help disaster victims. SARDA organizations are use available general aviation resources to facilitate speedier transport of emergency medical supplies, food, personnel and patients; as well as to conduct airborne reconnaissance. Aerial operations are not limited by rubble-strewn traffic lanes, destroyed bridges or localized fires.

The FAA currently provides the only guidance in effect for SARDA (Advisory Circular 00-7D). The material serves only to guide and is not a regulation or statute. The FAA published its most recent version of that circular in September 1998.

California, Illinois and Texas have SARDA plans. Most other states rely on the Civil Air Patrol for aviation disaster response.

Civil Air Patrol: Valuable Resource

Pilots and aircraft owners formed the Civil Air Patrol on Dec. 1, 1941, to assist in the impending World War II effort. CAP during that period flew numerous missions, including tow target, military transport, courier duties, border patrol and anti-submarine patrol. CAP efforts currently cover three areas: emergency services, aerospace education and cadet training.

CAP emergency services consist of search and rescue and disaster relief. CAP survives as the official, non-combatant auxiliary of the United States Air Force -- the only official civilian auxiliary of any branch of the U.S. armed forces. CAP is the emergency services organization of general aviation.

Current Response Protocol

If a major disaster were to occur today, most communities would call on the U.S. military - the only groups now capable of launching a response of this magnitude. Military involvement, however, creates a new set of problems.

It takes time for the military to mobilize. During the Persian Gulf War, many medical units were deployed overseas. In peacetime, most units are staffed at one-half their manning tables or less. They are then filled, if necessary, by calling reserves or by drafting from military hospitals. This mobilization takes weeks and requires a presidential declaration.

Another significant issue: Who will pay for the military response? Some states have been in litigation for years arguing over who will pay for services rendered when the military had responded. This creates the need for an alternative to military involvement. The alternative I propose: Plan and provide for a total civilian response.

'Disaster Circus' Comes to Town

As a Lt. Colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, specializing in disaster planning, I set about to create a model plan for such a civilian response.

After three years of research, I developed a model disaster response plan entitled "Civil Aeromedical Staging Facility," or CASF. I nicknamed the plan "Disaster Circus" because it uses temporary structures and requires air mobility.

CASF would employ general aviation aircraft, including helicopters, to facilitate immediate access to a temporary medical unit. Aircraft would transport a temporary structure for use as an emergency medical facility that would be staffed by a team of medical volunteers, including EMTs, paramedics, nurses and physicians. A board-certified emergency room physician would be in charge of the CASF, which would provide speedy relief to many a distressed community. What's more, CASF would save more lives.

Various state agencies would develop the facility, based on the potential needs of their constituency. The state's emergency preparedness agency, the state medical authorities, the state aviation authorities and the local Civil Air Patrol wing should be involved.

When the governor declares a state of emergency, the facility would mobilize. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft would transport the facility into the disaster area upon request from the state. The team would stabilize the injured and airlift them to supporting hospitals outside the disaster area. When no longer needed, the unit would dismantle the temporary facility and return to its home base.

Under this plan, the Civil Air Patrol would provide aircraft, aircrews, support bases, mission coordinators and communications. Equipment would be obtained from a variety of sources -- among them military surplus, donations or outright purchase. All equipment must be air-transportable.

My CASF plan, comprised of 12 chapters and including six annexes, provides for facilities of 100 beds, 300 beds, 600 beds and 1,000 beds, as well as the following:

  • Equipment lists
  • Equipment and facility configurations
  • Set-up and structure schedules
  • Generator power grid

If implemented, the plan would aid the people of any community that has experienced a disaster. It also would provide an opportunity for emergency organizations to work together in the face of disaster, without having to wait for a federal declaration or military mobilization. The plan also is sufficiently flexible to allow for customization to meet the needs of specific regions.

The key, under any circumstances, is appropriate planning before a disaster strikes.

Published by permission and courtesy of author, originally published in September/October issue of Every Second Counts magazine;  Copyright 2001 Joseph DePaolo.

See also the article "The Alpha Plan"  
and a previously published article by Joseph DePaolo: "Wings for Recovery"

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