As the waves of victims came, with skin burnt and lungs struggling to take in air, it quickly became clear that one hospital - or even one state’s hospitals - would not be enough.
Kent County Memorial Hospital in Warwick, closest to the scene, and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence sent out “blast” pages to summon all available doctors, nurses, and support staff.
By day’s end, ambulances and helicopters had taken patients to 11 hospitals in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The process worked relatively smoothly, said public health officials, but it also underlined the need to improve the region’s - and the nation’s - ability to respond to major disasters, including terrorist attacks.
Officials hope to have an Internet-based system in place this year to constantly monitor which hospitals are overloaded, and which can help. Yesterday, though, much of that communication was done the old-fashioned way.
“We were making a lot of phone calls today,” said Nancy Ridley, an assistant commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, who helped coordinate the response with the hospitals and colleagues in Rhode Island.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, hospitals across Boston established internal networks to better respond to major crises. Yesterday marked the first time those systems were put into action to respond to a true emergency, rather than a drill, according to Dr. Alasdair Conn, chief of emergency services at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Among the most seriously injured victims, many stayed in Rhode Island Hospital, and others were sent to Massachusetts General Hospital, Shriners Hospital for Children, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Three other Massachusetts hospitals also took patients from the fire: the University of Massachusetts-Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Saint Luke’s in New Bedford, and Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River.
Last June, the federal government gave the Massachusetts Department of Public Health $22 million in grants for a wide array of terrorism response projects, including improvements in handling a surge of patients, laboratory upgrades, and plans to deliver medication from the federal pharmaceutical stockpile, Ridley said.
Among the most helpful, she said, will be the Health Alert Network, which will tell officials, in real time, what resources - from beds to staff - all the state’s hospitals have available. That prototype of that system is being tested now, she said, and both Massachusetts and Rhode Island should have it operating by year’s end.