Medical Missions in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey
By Shelly A. Schneider
Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc in the state of Texas when it roared on shore as a Category 4 hurricane on August 25, 2017. According to the National Weather Service, the hurricane and tropical storm caused record flooding in southeast Texas and set a rainfall record for the most rain produced by a tropical weather system in the continental United States, with 49.32 inches of rain observed southeast of Houston.
Harvey also saw a large number of air medical assets deployed to provide access to people in need. There were 54 aircraft sent to Texas from across the United States, and Air Medical Group Holdings, the parent company of Air Evac Lifeteam, sent nearly three-quarters of them. Of those 40 aircraft, Air Evac Lifeteam contributed a total of 16 air medical assets — 14 of which were helicopters.
A Perfect Fit
Because of their ability to lift and land with minimal area, helicopters are the perfect aircraft to respond to critically ill and injured patients affected by natural disasters. Air Evac Lifeteam began preparing for possible deployments months before Harvey or Irma made landfall. Joe Grygiel, senior director of base operations, coordinated the company’s efforts from the O’Fallon, Missouri, national headquarters.
“Because of their maneuverability, helicopters can get to people during a disaster like no other aircraft,” Grygiel says. “Not only were we able to move patients out of flooded areas like Beaumont, Texas, we also picked up physicians in Houston and delivered them to the affected areas. Beaumont was completely surrounded by water, and going by ground was not an option.”
Grygiel is quick to praise the dozens of Air Evac employees and volunteers involved in the Hurricane Harvey response — those on the flight line, those on the ground in Texas providing support, and those in O’Fallon coordinating all aspects of the deployment.
“We knew which bases we wanted in Texas,” Grygiel says. “Almost immediately, we were overwhelmed with volunteers. After we got through Hurricane Harvey and started watching Hurricane Irma churn a path toward Florida, we had more people emailing, calling, and texting to volunteer. These crews are so selfless.”
Brandi Henson, director of the Air Evac Lifeteam Communications Center, agrees. “To say I’m proud to be a part of that is an understatement. From the flight line to the command post, no one batted an eye when it came time to help. Yes, there were hiccups and challenges, but we made it work. To watch a company that genuinely cares, that wants to the right thing and do it safely, from the bottom to the top and back again — that is why I love what I do.”
Answering the Call
Crews and aircraft from nine Texas bases responded, along with bases from Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. As with every flight, safety was paramount during the air medical response to those affected by Hurricane Harvey.
The crew briefings occurred at the start of each shift, and Grygiel says Air Evac Lifeteam sent two crews with every aircraft. “We doubled everything,” he says. “The maximum anyone could work was 12 hours — even the support staff. Each shift started with a safety briefing. The National Command Center had the ability to view and track our aircraft, as we did.”
Air Evac Lifeteam’s Communications Center employs communications specialists, operations control specialists, and maintenance control specialists. Having all three disciplines in the same room proved to be invaluable during the Hurricane Harvey response because it allowed the specialists to communicate easily with one another to problem-solve more efficiently.
Christopher Lewis, operations control specialist, says Air Evac Lifeteam planned to have a dedicated operations control tier 1 specialist 24 hours per day. These specialists serve as a second set of eyes for the pilots. “This way, we maintained the continuity of contact,” Lewis says.
Coming up with a plan to manage more than 50 aircraft was not an easy task. “There was a concentration of aircraft in a smaller area,” Lewis says. “Not to mention the logistics of coordinating forward operating bases, getting aircraft and crews from different parts of the country to Texas and home safely, and using different towers. Our leadership team did an outstanding job both in planning and implementation.”
However, the implementation was not without challenges. Lewis says a lot of the services pilots typically utilize were down. “Sometimes, control towers and radar approaches were either down or operating with limited manpower,” he says. “Established landing zones and helipads were without power or under water.”
Other challenges, according to Grygiel, included logistics such as “where would we get fuel, in what condition would the towers be, or where would we put our crews and get food?” he says. “We knew we could get the people there, but how would we maintain our crews once they arrived?”
Many of the crews that volunteered, however, were not concerned about the logistics. They simply said, “Yes, I will go.” The Harrisburg, Illinois, base sent two full crews, including area pilot John Berezoski. A retired U.S. Army pilot, Berezoski has flown for Air Evac Lifeteam for more than two years.
“Our shift change is at 8:00 a.m., and the program director called my phone at 8:15 a.m.,” Berezoski says. “I was just coming off the night shift, going through shift change, and briefing the day pilot. I worked with him, and that crew departed around 9:00 a.m.” Berezoski and the second medical crew picked up a rental car and drove to San Antonio.
“As a pilot, you’re thinking, how do I communicate within the Air Evac Lifeteam system? Not being very familiar with Texas, I wondered what our daily load would be, what the traffic volume might be, etc. I will say that it’s amazing how well and how smoothly we aviated and communicated.”
Berezoski says his focus during the Hurricane Harvey response was being more aware in the air. “My responsibility was to see and avoid, knowing the concentration of aircraft was exponentially increased,” he says. “Air Evac Lifeteam has done a tremendous job equipping our aircraft for these types of deployments, especially with ADS-B.”
In April 2017, Air Evac completed installation of the Cobham/HeliSAS Autopilot and Stability Augmentation System and the Garmin 650 and 500H glass cockpits in all of its aircraft. Important for every flight, these upgrades were especially valuable for the Hurricane Harvey response because they increased situational awareness and safety during a time when communications and weather reporting systems were not functioning normally.
Flight nurse Bryanna Johnson says she and her partner, flight paramedic Justin Woodall, helped their pilot listen for traffic and watch for aircraft in the busy airspace. “We watched for military and other aircraft coming in and out of the Beaumont area,” she says. “It was mind-blowing to see all the aircraft coming and going — fixed-wing and rotary-wing.”
A Job Well Done
Air Evac Lifeteam made approximately 300 flights in 12 days in support of Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. The last aircraft returned to its base on Sept. 7.
Just five days later, eight aircraft and crews headed to Florida to provide relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Irma. The number of people who volunteered for that assignment surpassed the Hurricane Harvey volunteer numbers. Providing access to health care is something pilots, nurses, and paramedics do each day, and they are ready to answer the call when the next natural disaster strikes.
Shelly A. Schneider is the public relations manager for Air Evac Lifeteam, headquartered in O’Fallon, Missouri. She worked in television, radio, and print for more than 20 years before landing the #bestjobever in November 2012. The best part of her job is working with, and learning from, everyone in the company — from communicators to mechanics, nurses and paramedics to medical directors. For more information about Air Evac Lifeteam, please visit Lifeteam.net.