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Mass casualty drill prepares next generation of front-line health care responders

Students at the UTHealth Houston Mass Casualty Incident Training transport a
Students at the UTHealth Houston Mass Casualty Incident Training transport a "victim" away from the scene to receive medical attention. (Photo by Nathan Jeter/UTHealth Houston)

Houston Fire Department’s Val Jahnke Fire Training Facility was host to the eighth UTHealth Houston Mass Casualty Incident Training on Friday, Nov. 17 — a unique and critical training event begun by Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston to bring together students from various health science disciplines at the university to face simulated disaster scenarios.

The event is made possible through a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to Elda Ramirez, PhD, RN, the Dorothy T. Nicholson Distinguished Professor at Cizik School of Nursing and an emergency trauma nurse.

This year’s event scenario, called “Save the Fire Ants,” enabled students to practice their skills and test their knowledge on responding effectively to real-world emergencies. A parade by the students involved twists and turns, including out-of-control bicyclists, a car explosion, fire trucks, active shooters, and Houston SWAT.

The incidents sent students into action to assist the “wounded” during a controlled, chaotic environment.

A firsthand account

Matthew Ward, a fourth-year medical student at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, had a firsthand experience at the mass casualty drill as he was thrown into action and forced to think on his toes.

“After the initial shock, the training kind of kicked in,” Ward said. “I saw injured people on the ground who needed help. I rushed over and I thought about what I needed to do to help them. In medical school, we do a lot of simulations where we practice all sorts of emergencies and we learn strategies on how to stay calm. That way, when we deal with something like this in the ‘real world,’ where a lot is going on, we know what to do.”

A collective mission

Kevin Schulz, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine at McGovern Medical School, is involved in the planning of the event that trained close to 300 people.

“The actual development of the process is a pretty significant undertaking,” said Schulz, who is also assistant emergency medical services physician director with the Houston Fire Department. “Many of those involved with the planning process and the logistics have been planning this for months. We can’t thank the Houston Fire Department enough for their contribution in terms of their cadets, chiefs, instructors, facility, and the entire firehouse. It makes a lot of the hard work worth it.”

Overcoming challenges for a unified effort

Organizing an event of this magnitude is not without challenges. Synchronizing the schedules of participating schools poses one of the most significant hurdles.

“Many students face conflicts with classes or exams,” said Debbie McCrea, EdD, MSN, EMT-P, event organizer and assistant professor at Cizik School of Nursing. “Over the years, we’ve worked with school leadership to adjust their calendars, ensuring more students can participate. Balancing the online didactic education component adds another layer of complexity.

“We want to prepare students adequately for these kind of situations without overwhelming them with additional responsibilities,” McCrea said. “Choosing the Friday before Thanksgiving, when academic demands tend to ease, allows students to focus on digesting the online content on mass casualty disaster concepts.”

Empowering students, one drill at a time

As project director of the mass casualty incident drill, Ramirez takes to heart the responsibility of preparing students for unimaginable situations in today’s society.

“We’ve had so much drama, trauma, and war taking place in the world that some of our scenarios are not too far outside of the imagination,” Ramirez said. “I have to teach people how to do this, because if I don’t, then they’re not going to be prepared. The bottom line is they’re going to save lives someday.

“I don’t know when that’s going to be or if it’ll be in my lifetime, but I at least know that this group of people every year is going to know how to do it,” Ramirez said.

The feedback from students over the years has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We’ve had students and faculty tell us they applied these concepts in real-life situations,” McCrea said. “Recently, a professor mentioned using incident command principles at a school bus accident in her neighborhood, showcasing the tangible impact of this training.”

The goal is to instill a fundamental understanding of the National Incident Management System, organizers said.

“Disaster response isn’t just chaos; there's an organized framework. Our students need to comprehend this,” McCrea said.

The lineup: Schools participating in “Save the Fire Ants”

This year's event included participation from 220 students and 25 faculty/staff, with an additional 35 Houston Fire Department cadets offering support.

Participants included:

  • Houston Fire Department cadets
  • McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston
  • Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston
    • Emergency Nurse Practitioner Program
    • Family Nurse Practitioner Program
    • Adult/Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Program
    • Undergraduate Nursing Program
  • UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry Dental Hygiene Program
  • McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth Houston
  • Houston Community College emergency medical students
  • The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center School of Health Professions

Kenny Bybee

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