Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) - For Lexington County EMS Deputy Chief of Operations Jason Hentz, any day of the week can be a challenge. Deputy Chief Hentz started his Public Safety career with the Lexington County Fire Service as a volunteer firefighter. Since then, his career, and the needs of the citizens, have grown together. When Deputy Chief Hentz began working with Lexington County EMS, the county had fewer than 10 EMS Units on the road. Now, there are times when there are 20 or more units responding from one emergency to another.
For some years now, Deputy Chief Hentz has had a special weapon in his operational arsenal should any EMS or medical system in South Carolina need help above what they are immediately capable of providing. He oversees one of the states four RMAT or Regional Medical Assistance Teams, housed on Ballpark Road in Lexington, ready and available to deploy at a moment’s notice.
RMAT was developed after Hurricane Katrina struck the US. Post disaster, it became evident that states needed to be able to hold their own for the first 72 hours while the federal government mobilized federal assets after an event of that magnitude. Those first three days are critical and that is where RMAT comes into play. Through the utilization of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants that are managed through the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and in conjunction with the support of Lexington County Council,Lexington County EMS was selected to host the Midlands RMAT.
In addition to the Midlands’ RMAT, three other teams are available in times of need for the State of South Carolina. They are stationed in Spartanburg, Beaufort, and Horry counties.If one RMAT needs assistance, the other regional teams can come together to take on an even larger role.
The four teams are self-contained full treatment facilities with specialized equipment. Each piece of equipment is stored in one of several fully equipped trucks or large trailers. They respond with a well-trained crew, places for them to live, and even food. They have insulated structures that easily go up in less than an hour, a large diesel generator for power that can run for days on the fuel stored on board, heating and air systems, and totes packed with every kind of medical supply imaginable from first-aid kits to items necessary to perform medical procedures. Each team is also equipped with an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) that responds with the team to assist with moving patients and equipment over rough terrain. In addition to the shelter systems, each team responds with a fully stocked pharmacy cache that is kept under lock and key and closely guarded by law enforcement when deployed.
These four South Carolina teams are constantly training and ready to deploy. If some type of major emergency like a hurricane occurs, RMAT can move in, set up, and assist medical facilities that are destroyed, damaged or overwhelmed by increased patient loads. They are there for those first crucial three days, offering care and support to assist local resources. By that point, the Federal Government has had the opportunity to get their specialized teams in place that can stay for weeks or even months if needed.
Besides preparing for large-scale disasters, RMAT have been used in several ways. The Midlands RMAT has deployed within Lexington and Richland Counties in conjunction with SCDHEC and the Metropolitan Medical Response System (MMRS) during the H1N1 flu epidemic. RMAT set up their shelter systems on Ballpark Road and assisted SCDHEC and MMRS with the vaccination of eight hundred (800) people. They also collaborated with the South Carolina Department of Public Safety (SCDPS) at their headquarters to ensure that state response personnel were vaccinated. In addition to the H1N1 vaccination sites, they have worked with SCDHEC at the South Carolina Fairgrounds for point of distribution site or PODS. In the PODS locations, vaccinations or antibiotics are administered rapidly and efficiently. They have also responded with the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), a federal response team to support hurricane evacuations along our coast and assisted with the Puerto Ricco evacuation. All of the states RMAT’s have been involved in large statewide drills like Operation Palmetto Shield and Operation Coastal Watch.
In order to activate RMAT, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division (SCEMD) receives a request from other jurisdictions for assistance. Once the request is received, teams are notified and begin preparing for deployment. When a team has been requested, they have a six (6) hour window to respond and be ready to receive injured or ill patients.
In Lexington County, the notification from SCEMD is received at the Lexington County Communications Center. Then the Midlands RMAT team is notified by the Lexington County Communications Center through the use of specialized text system and reverse 911 technology.
Lexington County Council has shown continued support of the team by providing a special pay incentive for active members who fully complete their RMAT training and qualifications. Once the Midlands RMAT deploys, Lexington County EMS increases its operational tempo and scheduling to ensure that it can respond to emergencies within the county efficiently without reducing system capabilities.
One of the ways the Midlands RMAT trains is during the Lexington County Peach festival in Gilbert. The team deploys one of the smaller Western Shelter systems. This training is invaluable to the team as it lets the team stand up a treatment system and provide immediate care to visitors attending the festival. Additionally, if one of the many volunteers or first responders is overheated or injured, they can be taken to shelter to cool down or receive medical care. While I watched the team set up the shelter system, I asked Deputy Chief Hentz about the ability to cool the shelter in the high heat and humidity of summer, his response was simply “Tomorrow, during the festival you’ll be able to hang meat inside.”
We all hope that the people of Lexington County will never need the RMAT to activate for an incident in our county. One day however, we may find ourselves in the bullseye of another hurricane like Hugo. If that is the case, the men and women of Lexington County EMS are ready and able to activate the RMAT stationed here to help our neighbors wherever needed.