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Exercise tests, demonstrates new DOD capabilities

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AFNS) -- As a C-17 Globemaster III flown by the Air National Guard slowly made its way down the Offutt Air Force Base flightline July 23, ambulances from the Omaha Fire and Rescue Department along with other local emergency response vehicles waited just outside an aircraft parking ramp.

This was all part of exercise Patriot 15, an interagency field training exercise used to practice domestic operations within the U.S.

The annual exercise included aeromedical evacuation of patients with highly infectious illnesses from Volk Field, Wisconsin, to Offutt AFB; however, this was not the first time a scenario like this has occurred.

Last September, Dr. Rick Sacra, a patient infected with the Ebola virus, was flown to Offutt AFB by commercial air, where he was transferred by ambulance to the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Biocontainment Unit for treatment.

As part of this year's exercise, three simulated patients with varying degrees of highly infectious illnesses were flown in and transferred into ambulances waiting on the ramp. Offutt's role in the exercise was to coordinate the reception of the aircraft and to provide a safe and secure airfield for the transfer of the patients.

"Overall, we think the exercise went very well," said Lt. Col. Chris Luther, the 55th Wing Crisis Action Team director, who oversaw the exercise and led the first Ebola patient reception in 2014. "It was a collaborate effort with local emergency response agencies that reinforced our preparedness for such an event."

In addition to training, the exercise was also used to demonstrate the Transport Isolation Unit, which is a newly developed piece of equipment that became operational earlier this year.

According to sources, each module of the Transport Isolation Unit can be configured to carry up to four patients at a time, depending on the degree of their illness. Three modules make up one unit. The unit provides an enclosed negative pressure environment intended to prevent the spread of biological contaminates through the air or by contact.

Until recently, patients with illnesses such as the Ebola virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome could only be transported by a single-occupancy patient isolation unit that limited the type of care that could be given.

"We can provide critical care in the air, inside the (Transport Isolation Unit), that other units really aren't capable of doing," said Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Kory Cornum, the Air Mobility Command surgeon. "So it gives us not only capability for more patients, but care during transport."

The Defense Department is in the process of acquiring more of the units and hopes to have 25 available by the end of the year. Each unit can be loaded onto a C-17 or C-130 Hercules for the transfer of multiple critical-care patients anywhere in the world.

"Last year we had several thousand people in Liberia potentially exposed to Ebola," Cornum said. "That's when we realized (the single-patient isolation unit) wasn't good enough."

More than 50 people from University of Nebraska Medical Center, Offutt AFB and local medical response agencies attended a demonstration inside the cargo area of a C-17 during a pause in the exercise. Doctors from the Critical Care Air Transport Team, assigned to the 59th Medical Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, gave demonstrations on personal protective equipment and how their team will use the system to transport and treat the most critical patients.

Staff from the biocontainment unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which is the largest unit in the nation, were impressed by the demonstration and capabilities of the new unit.

"This is exciting and an honor for (UNMC) to be here and to be involved on the receiving end," said Dr. Phillip Smith, the medical director of the biocontainment unit. "This is just a way to keep getting ready because you never know when you're going to get the call."