Ready to respond: Pictured, from left, Jonathan Friedstat, MD, MGH Burn Service, and Alok Gupta, MD, BIDMC 

On the first morning of an imagined two-day music festival, disaster struck for the 27,000 people who had gathered on the festival grounds. In a series of unfortunate events – a spark from a cigarette, a propane tank leak, a food truck explosion – the crowd was engulfed in a fireball and thousands of people incurred severe burns and trauma injuries. First responders rushed to the scene and patients were transported to local hospitals. Those hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, and many of the injured required higher levels of care.

Such was the scenario for “Operation Minute’s Notice,” a Regional Disaster Health Response System (RDHRS) training exercise led by the MGH on Aug. 27. The exercise examined ways that hospitals can work together during a disaster to share clinical expertise and resources to provide the best care for patients.

“Even though scenarios like these are rare, they are possible, and our health care system needs to be ready to respond,” said Paul Biddinger, MD, director of the MGH Center for Disaster Medicine. “Our top priority is that, in a truly catastrophic event where hospitals become overwhelmed, we can work together to share resources and expertise to save lives.”

The exercise was an opportunity to evaluate work completed as part of a demonstration project grant awarded to the MGH in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). Through this project, ASPR is supporting partnerships that address health care preparedness challenges, establish best practices for improving disaster readiness across the health care delivery system and show the potential effectiveness and viability of a RDHRS – a network of health care partners working together to support optimal disaster planning and response.

Working with a number of hospitals and health system partners from across the state, the exercise explored concepts such as deploying teams of medical personnel to respond to the site of a disaster, connecting local medical providers with clinical expertise via telemedicine, and coordinating the transport of patients to other hospitals to avoid overwhelming any one facility.

“This time last year, the concept of a Regional Disaster Health Response System didn’t yet exist,” Biddinger said. “We have much work left to do to formalize these processes and make them available to the region, but there is certainly promise for our partnership, and others like it, to fill in the current gaps if an event were to happen in the future. I am confident that this pilot phase has been successful in improving our overall disaster preparedness and health care response capabilities.”

The Center for Disaster Medicine team – which recently was notified the pilot program would continue for a second year – will now build upon the successes and lessons learned from this exercise and the past year of research to expand the partnership throughout New England.

Exercise participants:

Along with the MGH, the exercise included experts from the American Burn Association, local public health and EMS leaders, and observers from other New England states, HHS ASPR and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

Participating RDHRS Member Hospitals: Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Tufts Medical Center and UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.

Community hospitals: Morton Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital, Brockton Hospital, Sturdy Memorial, Brockton VA, St. Anne’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital Urgent Care, St. Luke’s and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Plymouth.