Weather Forecast


Conference brings array of resources to town

Dr. Jim Harris, left, looks on Thursday as Brad Hanson discusses the functions and capabilities of the Mobile Medical Unit during a conference in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Inside the large white trailer that houses the Minnesota Department of Health's Mobile Medical Unit, field beds are neatly lined up, partitioned by curtains.

Rows of glass-fronted cabinets house basic supplies.

The unit has a portable X-ray machine and its own small laboratory and pharmacy. It's equipped with ventilators. It can provide invasive cardiac monitoring and ultrasound.

"You'd think you were in an emergency department, and you are," said Dr. Jim Harris, an emergency physician and medical director of the Mobile Medical Unit.

The parking lot outside the Willmar Conference Center has been filled since Wednesday with emergency trailers, tents and the semi-trailer-sized Mobile Medical Unit -- all the physical trappings that help emergency response teams deal with disaster, whether it's a flood, tornado or other catastrophe.

Willmar has been hosting a three-day conference of the Southwest Emergency Preparedness Team, a regional group consisting of hospitals, medical clinics, emergency medical services and nursing homes in a 16-county area.

For the 130 attendees, the event is a chance to learn more about the resources that are available and to sharpen their coordination, planning and response skills.

Mock training exercises help add a dose of realism. Today, for example, conference participants will go through a simulation of how to respond if a tornado hit Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar. They will be critiqued afterward on how they did.

Practice might not make 100 percent perfect, said Robin Thompson, the education and exercise coordinator for the Southwest Emergency Preparedness Team. "No matter how much we drill, there's always those unexpected elements," she said.

But the training and firsthand exposure to resources such as the Mobile Medical Unit are invaluable in helping teams become better prepared and more capable of working together, said Thompson and Brad Hanson, operations manager of the Willmar Ambulance Service, the home base for the Southwest Emergency Preparedness Team.

"Now they understand that if there's a need for it, they know what we're talking about," Hanson said.

The Mobile Medical Unit is one of fewer than half a dozen in the United States. None of the others -- the nearest is in Michigan -- quite matches the $1.2 million rig, which was acquired with a federal grant, said Judy Marchetti, health care system preparedness program supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Health. "This is unique."

It's custom-designed, with hydraulics that expand the semi trailer into a 1,000-square-foot stand-alone medical treatment facility. Two of its eight beds are equipped for critical care.

When the unit is deployed, it's accompanied by its own supply vehicle and technical operations team with expertise in everything from mechanics to communication and information technology.

It can function as a first-aid station or take sicker patients who need to be stabilized, Harris said. "The continuum goes right up to major disaster."

So far, it has been deployed three times -- at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008, in Moorhead during spring flooding in 2009, and at a St. Cloud air show last year. It could also travel to other states if there's a need, Harris said.

Because the Mobile Medical Unit relies on local coordination and local health care professionals to be most effective, it's critical for teams to know how to leverage the resources available, said Jane Braun, director of emergency preparedness with the Minnesota Department of Health.

"When something happens, they know what kind of resources are available and how to request them," she said. "It's awareness and it's also training and building local capacity. ... It's to support the community to provide care and to support the responders."

One of the current objectives: integrating Minnesota's Ambulance Strike Teams more closely in the operation of the Mobile Medical Unit. The strike teams can deploy anywhere in the state, supplementing local ambulance services that need extra help.

At the Southwest Emergency Preparedness Team conference, strike teams from southwestern Minnesota showed off one of their latest acquisitions, a large tent that can be used as a mobile clinic or command center. It's fully air-conditioned, heated and insulated and equipped with electronic monitoring equipment and its own generator.

There was a time when emergency responders didn't have this kind of infrastructure, Thompson said.

Effective teams who are skilled and competent are still paramount, but it helps to have advanced equipment such as the strike team tents and the Mobile Medical Unit, she said. "It's easier when you have wonderful resources like this."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150