When you were a paramedic student, what would you have given to be able to respond to a mass casualty incident (MCI) like a smoking plane crash with scattered body parts and living patients entangled in the wreckage? Students at Hutchinson Community College (HCC) and surrounding schools offering paramedic degrees get to do that in the Kansas heat each June.
For two days, HCC holds Joint Community College Paramedic Field Operations on their vast campus—a former U.S. Naval Air Station. On June 14 and 15, they expect close to 50 paramedic students to take part in the eerily realistic exercise. Volunteer patients are moulaged, briefed and trained how to act and react. EMS agencies bring in ambulances and medical helicopters. Equipment manufacturers bring supplies to see how they work in the field. The Red Cross feeds everyone.
This ambitious operation has been going on since 2006, according to logistics coordinator Kent Salle. It’s growing, too. In 2010, they had about half the number of students they expect this June. Salle says the 11-member department faculty and staff start planning in January.
Peivi Tauiliili is a paramedic with Sedgwick (Kan.) County EMS. As a recent grad from HCC, Tauiliili participated in the 2010 field ops. “It was the biggest thing I've ever seen for EMS,” he says, adding that it was an invaluable experience before going into his internship. In fact, he says he got so much from the experience, he's serving on this year's committee.
Ryan Setzkorn, a 2000 graduate from HCC and currently clinical coordinator with EMSA in Oklahoma City, Okla., is also coming back to participate. This is the second year he'll return with an EMSA ambulance. Not only can he give back to his school, but he can also be there as a recruitment tool for EMSA. “Our goal is to get them down here [Oklahoma City] to see us. Show them something a bit bigger than they are used to. Help them understand there is life outside of rural EMS,” he says.
On the first day, the scenarios involve single patients in the most common situations the students are likely to encounter when they begin working in the field: cardiac arrests, difficulty breathing, falls, motor vehicle accidents and seizures. Each team includes students from different schools, a driver of the ambulance and a mentor.
Paramedic Amanda Sebring, a 2010 graduate, says it was a great learning experience. “It was amazing how real people made it,” she says. Her first call during the exercise was an obstetrics call. Sebring expected to find a pillow or pad under the woman's shirt when she began her examination. “She was really pregnant!” Sebring says. The variety of calls also impressed her. Partnering with a student and preceptor from a different school was valuable to her because she “got guidance from other perspectives.”
During the first day, even though there’s only one patient per call, students have to deal with other people like family members or bystanders. For example, during a domestic violence call, the abuser is still there when the students arrive. They respond to a call about a house on fire, so they interact with firefighters.
Another returning grad is Gabe Shults, a paramedic with nearby Butler County (Kan.) EMS. He's bringing an ambulance for the second year and will provide logistical assistance, as well as serving as a mentor. He recalls his experience while a student as “a bit overwhelming. After the first two hours, you don't even have time to think. You just do the next thing.”
HCC has unique resources, besides the large, isolated campus that allows them to run lights and sirens without annoying citizens. The college has emergency communications and fire service departments. Students in those departments also get valuable practical experience during the exercises.
The second day is devoted to MCIs that give students exposure to less-frequent types of calls. Working with outside agencies and students from other schools also prepares them to interact with those they don't work with every day—a very real part of MCI response.
The MCI exercise can involve as many as 30 to 40 patients. “It gives the students the opportunity to see how to set up command and how to flow patients through triage to treatment,” says Setzkorn. Then there’s the practical experience of learning “how to load a patient [onto a helicopter] when the blades are still rotating,” he says. Not the kind of learning a student can get in the classroom.
Event organizers store pieces of a crashed airplane that they bring out every year. They spread the broken fuselage and other portions of the plane as realistically as they can among a stand of trees that have suffered burn damage. A smoke machine puts smoke through the scene of crying crash survivors and motionless patients the students are expected to identify as deceased and triage as black tag. One of the goals of such realism is to emotionally prepare students for scenes of carnage.
Hutchinson Community College continues to look to the future with bold and ambitious plans. As word of the Joint Community College Paramedic Field Operations spreads, they anticipate incorporating more colleges and outside resources to expand the opportunity to more students.