Except for some communications problems, emergency medical services generally did an effective job during the earthquake that killed 66 people and injured more than 3,200 in the Bay Area last month, a high-ranking state medical official said Saturday.
“This was not a catastrophic event, but certainly a large event,” said Dr. Bruce Haynes, director of the state Office of Emergency Medical Services. “The medical system responded well in virtually every regard. There was no problem with ambulances, paramedics and emergency physicians.”
Haynes, who attended a state briefing Friday with health officials from the counties hardest hit by the quake, gave the assessment at UCI Medical Center during a two-day earthquake preparedness course for doctors.
UCI’s class provided instruction on a broad range of topics from the management of crush injuries to the broader problems of delivering massive amounts of medical assistance to a disaster area.
The violent, magnitude-7.1 quake, hit the Bay Area at 5:04 p.m. on Nov. 17 during commuting hours and immediately before Game 3 of the World Series. In 15 seconds, it caused a 100-mile long swath of destruction, buckled a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and collapsed a mile-long section of double-deck freeway in Oakland.
“There was widespread devastation,” Haynes said. “We are lucky more weren’t injured. This warns all of us about what can happen.”
After the quake hit, Haynes said, the Office of Emergency Medical Services, responsible for coordinating disaster medical services in the state, monitored television and radio broadcasts to help determine where medical personnel were needed.
The office summoned National Guard medical units, located available beds at hospitals, called ambulance associations and contacted medical services statewide to send in supplies and doctors.
If anything, Haynes said, the state’s medical Establishment overreacted to the earthquake and initially pumped more medical personnel and supplies than needed into the stricken areas from San Francisco to Santa Cruz.
“My thinking is always to over-respond,” Haynes said. “It’s better to get everyone going and have to call people back. If you get behind, you’ve got a problem.”
For example, on the day of the earthquake the state initially ordered National Guard evacuation field hospitals to be sent to Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento to handle any overflow of the injured from Bay Area medical facilities. The guard’s medical units were not needed and returned to their home bases the next day.
Haynes said the biggest problem was the failure of telephone systems, which hampered communications in the most devastated areas. He called for satellite communications systems that enable emergency crews to send out information without having to rely on telephones.
Dispatchers for many public safety agencies in the Bay Area operated out of older buildings that were not earthquake-proof, Haynes said. He called for those emergency operations centers to be reinforced.
In some cases, he noted, the buildings were so badly damaged they had to be evacuated except for the agency’s communications workers, who were desperately needed to dispatch police, ambulances and rescue crews.
Haynes said hospitals should take special precautions to secure their vital equipment. He cited what happened to Watsonville Community Hospital, which was almost knocked out by the quake.
The force of the temblor knocked virtually everything off the pharmacy shelves, spilled chemicals in the laboratory and the X-ray units, and tipped over the hospital’s liquid oxygen tank, knocking it out of commission.