EMERGENCY HEALTH SERVICES PROFESSOR RICK BISSELL
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The 8.8-level earthquake that hit Chile in the early morning hours of February 27 was one of the strongest earthquakes ever measured, and the strongest recorded since 1964. Given that Chile uses essentially the same anti-seismic building codes as California, this event provided researchers with a unique opportunity to learn how different building designs withstood a very powerful earthquake.
On March 13, I joined the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) as a health expert on a nine-day “rapid reconnaissance” trip to investigate Chile’s structural earthquake damage. I was part of a subgroup that investigated the types of damages that occurred to hospitals and how the structural damages affected patient care. We also looked at how the Chilean authorities worked around the damages to their facilities and provided care to both emergency patients and those who were already in the hospitals. We witnessed much of the earthquake zone first-hand, particularly in the areas of Biobio, Talca, Los Angeles, Concepción and Talcahuano (See my slideshow above to get an idea of the extent of the damage).
Chile is now ranked by the World Bank as a “First World” country due both to its economic productivity and stability, as well as its excellent education and health care systems. Because of this, the experience in Chile can do a lot to inform us here in the United States regarding systems that worked, and those that did not perform as wished. We inspected hospitals, large and small, for structural damage, and interviewed hospital directors and medical directors to find out how they managed the response to the earthquake, and the on-going response to meet the public’s healthcare needs with diminished resources available. I was highly impressed with the resourcefulness of Chilean healthcare personnel under often horrifying circumstances, especially in their ability to flexibly develop new ways of doing things while still maintaining priority for patient safety and positive outcome. With the communications systems down, hospitals learned to use EMS (ambulance) radio systems to communicate with the outside world. They also did an excellent job of making space for new patients while evacuating current patients from damaged sections of their buildings without resorting to the potentially dangerous (under the conditions) practice of massively transferring patients to other hospitals.
I am now working other members of my group from Johns Hopkins University – Dr. Tom Kirsch and Engineering Prof. Judith Mitrani-Reiser — to submit to a proposal the National Science Foundation (who funded the EERI trip) for additional funding for some in-depth research in Chile. The Chilean Ministry of Health will be using our findings as part of their assessment process.
Learn more here.
— Rick Bissell, director of UMBC’s Center for Emergency Education and Disaster Research.