Tuesday, July 9, 2013

West Fertilizer Explosion Tests Physician Response to Disasters

The April 17 fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 160 in the Central Texas town of West put the state's disaster response system to the test. Area health professionals and emergency responders mobilized quickly to care for the injured and prevent more deaths.

One such doctor is George Smith, DO, West emergency medical service (EMS) director and medical director for West Rest Haven nursing home. When a fire broke out at the fertilizer plant, Dr. Smith, worried that the plant could blow up at any moment, helped save 127 nursing home residents by coordinating their removal from rooms near the plant before it exploded. He suffered cuts on his face and back when the ceiling fell in on him. He and other first responders organized rescue groups and treated the injured all through the night.

One elderly nursing home resident died of a heart attack after being evacuated from the facility.

“We were fortunate there weren’t more fatalities,” Dr. Smith told Texas Medicine magazine.

He said the blast knocked out ambulance radio and cell phone communication, so he used a satellite radio in a helicopter to tell the EMS dispatcher to send medical help. Because EMS personnel couldn’t talk to one another, they had to rely on their training.

“It’s important for medical professionals and first responders to know prior to a disaster how they should function if lines of communication get knocked out. It frustrated me that I couldn’t talk to my ambulance drivers to give them guidance. Luckily, they knew what to do,” Dr. Smith said.

Dr. Smith has practiced in West for 38 years and lives only 250 yards from the site of the explosion, which destroyed his home. Helping his long-time friends and neighbors in the aftermath of the explosion meant the world to him.

“That’s what I’m trained to do. I’m the acting medical commander of the Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and I helped after hurricanes Katrina and Ike. I’ve now been on the giving and receiving end of disaster response,” he said.

For more on the physician response to the disaster in West, check out Texas Medicine magazine’s July issue.

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