Nursing instructor Andrea Warwick is always packed and ready to go — to disaster scenes
You’ve probably heard of the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but did you know the federal government also maintains an on-call emergency response force made up solely of medical personnel?
Called a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), each unit is made up of trained citizen responders who can be deployed to disaster sites anywhere in the world on two hours’ notice.
Just ask Andrea Warwick, who juggles her DMAT duties with her roles as full-time hospital nurse and nursing program instructor at the University of Phoenix Main Campus. Her Tucson, Arizona-based emergency team most recently deployed to New York after Hurricane Sandy.
“I’ve been with DMAT for about four years now,” Warwick says, adding that she and most of her team members hold full-time jobs. Although DMAT personnel typically spend only four months each year on call, Warwick notes that the scale of the Sandy response was so large, it required virtually every DMAT worker to deploy.
DMAT personnel are covered by the same federal employment law as members of the National Guard, so their regular jobs are held for them during deployment, according to Warwick. On-call DMAT members, like those who serve in the Guard, must keep bags and gear packed in preparation to mobilize at any time.
Warwick’s Hurricane Sandy duties took her to Long Island, an area hit hard by the storm. “We helped convert the Nassau Community College campus to an emergency [medical] clinic and shelter,” she says. “We were lucky to be in a fixed facility — another DMAT team was in tents on the beach, and it was freezing!”
Warwick notes that all DMAT teams are trained to establish treatment centers regardless of local conditions. “We set up our base of operations using [National Disaster Medical System] tents, generators, defibrillators, respiratory equipment,” she explains, “everything for providing critical care outside a hospital.”
While on Long Island, Warwick and her colleagues — doctors, nurses, paramedics and respiratory therapists — worked rotating 12-hour shifts. “You worked and you slept,” she says. “It got to the point you didn’t know what day it was, so we’d always write the day and date on the board each morning.”
There was no shortage of patients. “We treated whoever the Red Cross couldn’t help with basic first aid,” Warwick explains, “people with respiratory problems, or [who] had run out of medications or needed stabilizing before they could get to a hospital. We also treated a lot of relief workers due to an outbreak of Norwalk virus in the shelter.”
Working in a disaster zone isn’t without risks. All DMAT personnel are protected by armed federal marshals 24/7 against looters and other possible civil unrest, Warwick says, adding, “They even guarded us in the shower.”
DMAT doesn’t recruit members. Warwick found the agency’s website by accident because of her interest in emergency-response nursing, and applied. The application process was grueling and took her nearly a year to complete. “I was strongly affected by 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina,” she notes, “and wanted to help make a difference.”
For Warwick, the payoff comes in providing aid when people are most vulnerable. “It’s startling to see people in the United States whose worldly possessions are reduced to what fits under a shelter cot,” she says. “[Helping them] is fulfilling.”