Providing medical care for law enforcement during Hurricane Harvey
As Hurricane Harvey approached, Austin and other cities along the Texas gulf coast prepared for the worst. Although Austin escaped Harvey’s wrath, Houston and many other cities and counties across Texas were batted by wind and inundated by historic flooding.
In addition to water rescue teams from Austin and Travis County, who plucked countless people from the floodwaters in south Texas, a large force from the Texas Department of Public Safety (TxDPS) and the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) responded to the area.
The TxDPS and TDEM sent more than 1,000 personnel from across the state to support law enforcement and rescue operations in the hurricane and flood-ravaged areas.
One of those assets was a task force of the legendary Texas Rangers. This group of 84 personnel performed 915 rescues and helped almost 1,500 people by meeting life-sustaining needs. As a critical part of “Task Force Ranger,” we have full-time tactical paramedics, John Dunn and Ryan Schaffer, and four other Special Operations Group (SOG) medics who were responsible for providing medical care for the Texas Rangers and other TxDPS assets in the region.
I have the privilege of serving as the medical director for TxDPS and TDEM. Though there were plenty of challenges associated with caring for evacuees, there were also many obstacles in the provision of “troop support” for our state law enforcement officers.
The first issue the medics faced was providing immunizations for our personnel. Approximately half of the task force was unsure about their tetanus status and eager to get protected as concerns about stagnant floodwaters increased.
After dozens of tetanus boosters were administered by the medics, the next question was whether or not to vaccinate for hepatitis A. Conventional opinion is that it’s not necessary because it takes 1–2 weeks for the vaccine to take effect. At that stage, we weren’t sure how long the deployment would last and how soon the next water emergency would be coming.
As soon as the vaccines were procured, the first round of hepatitis A immunizations was administered, including the documentation and scheduling for the second round.
With the prophylaxis out of the way, attention turned to other forms of prevention— “village medicine stuff,” as Dunn calls it. This included general education about foot care, small wound care, field sanitation, and hygiene.
It wasn’t the high-speed medicine that these tactical medics are used to as part of the Texas Rangers SWAT team, but it was certainly familiar territory from their days of military service. The education was invaluable and helped prevent additional problems in the austere environment of south Texas.
Another challenge encountered was one unmistakable characteristic of the affected areas: the smell. Even weeks after the floodwaters subsided, the smell of mold was a growing and significant concern for our task force members.
As you can imagine, N95 masks were hard to come by, but we were able to secure them through TDEM logistics. This is definitely an important consideration for future flood- related deployments.
The deployment was met with a number of illnesses and injuries. Luckily none were severe. The medics took care of multiple cases of brief diarrheal illness and handed out over-the-counter meds for aches and pains as well as upper respiratory illnesses.
Many personnel were treated for abrasions and lacerations that were irrigated and cleaned. They then received treatment with antibiotics from the team’s supply cache following approval by medical control. Others required coordination of local assets or referrals to urgent care centers for repair. For minor musculoskeletal issues, a few other prescriptions were called in for other medications not carried by the team.
Although there was a large contingency of medical assets in the area, having dedicated and experienced tactical paramedics deployed with the task force was a key component for mission success.
Despite the disastrous conditions, the long hours, and the tedious work, the medics kept the team healthy and functional throughout the deployment. The capabilities that they brought with them, enhanced by online telemedicine support and local resources, proved to be a remarkable success.
The TxDPS and TDEM personnel deployed during Hurricane Harvey, as well as those leaders and administrators in Austin and throughout Texas, are a credit to this state and nation.
Statewide, more than 21,000 personnel, approximately 2,000 vehicles and aircraft, and 377 boats performed 34,062 rescues, 37,758 evacuations, and more than 2,000 animal rescues and evacuations.
To the personnel from around the country to came to our aid—Texas thanks you!