February 4, 2009

At a Moment’s Notice

As a member of a federal disaster medical assistance team, Public Safety’s Geoff Bartlett has helped communities cope after Katrina and Ike, and even an earthquake in Iran

Text and slideshow by Leslie Macmillan

We’ve all seen the images on TV and in the newspapers: the scorched earth of Ground Zero, homes floating in the floodwaters of New Orleans, the evacuee-choked highways out of Galveston.

But Geoff Bartlett, a technical services manager in the Department of Public and Environmental Safety, has had a more intimate view into some of the worst disasters to hit American soil. As an emergency medical technician (EMT) and logistics expert, he is a member of a federal disaster medical assistance team that provides aid when local medical facilities are either overwhelmed or have been destroyed.

Click on the play button for a slideshow narrated by Geoff Bartlett, left, about his experiences as a disaster medical assistance team member.

Often the team is on the ground before they know the full scope of the assignment, which was the case with Bartlett’s first call to duty—on 9/11 in New York City. “We thought we’d be working the pile,” he says. “It took several days before it sank in that the mission was to provide occupational health to responders who were sifting through the rubble of the towers.” This meant, for instance, treating the foot problems of the firefighters and search-and-rescue responders who worked in boots for 16-hour days.

The team’s job, Bartlett says, “is not to come in and take over. It’s to provide resources to the local authorities.”

After Hurricane Katrina, Bartlett’s team waited in a staging area near New Orleans for days before their task became clear: to give immunizations to lines of people that stretched for city blocks.

The teams function much like the Army Reserve: each has a core of EMTs, nurses and doctors ready to deploy for up to two weeks to a disaster within 24 hours’ notice. They work seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, live on military rations and sleep in tents, sometimes even sharing cots.

His last assignment sent him to Galveston, Texas, after Hurricane Ike. Bartlett says he was well prepared for the work by the “hard-core camping” he did growing up on Nantucket and around New England.

Bartlett received his EMT training as a student at Tufts and over the course of a summer while working in the emergency room at Nantucket Cottage Hospital. His logistics expertise comes from working as a Tufts Police dispatcher, a job he took to pay his Tufts tuition. He uses that training on the Massachusetts-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team. In his logistics role, Bartlett establishes the communications infrastructure—installing satellite links and setting up radios and phone and data networking services. As an EMT, he gives immunizations, closes wounds, starts IVs and takes vital signs, among other tasks.

As far as the mental preparation, “a lot of it is just being flexible,” says Bartlett. “You pack for a mission, and you hope you’ve thought of everything you might need, because you don’t know what you’ll be doing until you’re doing it.”

This was definitely true of an assignment in 2003, when Bartlett received a phone call shortly after Christmas telling him to cancel his holiday plans. Within 24 hours, he found himself aboard an Air Force jet en route to Bam, Iran, where an earthquake had leveled the city and killed more than 26,000 people.

“I could not sleep a wink on that flight,” says Bartlett. “I was worried the plane would turn around, and I’d never put a boot on the ground.” It was a reasonable worry, given the state of relations between the U.S. and Iran. But they did land, and became the first official U.S. government presence in Iran in 22 years, since the end of the hostage crisis in 1981.

“We think we actually experienced a higher census at the hospital because people wanted to see the Americans,” says Bartlett. The group was definitely conspicuous as they came in from the airport, along the fabled Silk Road from Kerman to Bam, their SUV towing a portable hospital.

“A white Suburban screams ‘U.S. Government,’ ” says Bartlett. “We could not be missed.”

In one week, the team of 70, working under austere conditions, provided medical care to 727 Iranians. They often had to improvise. Leftover boxes from military MREs (meals ready to eat) formed cradles for newborns; bandages from first-aid kits were fashioned into head coverings for female team members, in observance of local custom.

So what’s the appeal of spending two weeks in a disaster zone?

“The natural answer is, ‘I want to help people,’ ” Bartlett says. “And I do want to help people, but everybody on that team I think enjoys the challenge—the challenge of the environment, of the medical issues. Selfishly, you feel like you’ve done something really important.”

Leslie Macmillan can be reached at leslie.macmillan@tufts.edu.

Article Tools

emailE-mail printPrint