May 26, 2017 – It was a quiet, pre-holiday week in San Diego, unless you were part of the crew of the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) who spent the week underway off the coast, participating in a medical response exercise called MERCEX.
MERCEX was a three day exercise in which the Navy Medical Treatment Facility (MTF) and civil service mariner (CIVMAR) crew focused on a simulated response to treat wounded from a mass casualty incident involving a Navy destroyer. Using live, volunteer “actors” and special medical mannequins as victims, patients were embarked aboard Mercy via tender boat or helicopter. From there, they were processed through the triage system of prioritizing the most life threatening injuries first, and providing medical care. Simulated injuries included burns, poison gas exposure, and broken bones.
The medical training wasn’t limited to only the mass casualty incident. Separate training included injuries centering around shipboard incidents such as steam burns, blunt force trauma from a fall and compromised airway, conducted with the same triage and care system as the larger scenario.
“We try to make the scenarios as real as we can,” explained Lt. Cmdr. Tawanna Birdsong-Blanche, Mercy’s administration and public affairs officer. “This training, and the realism we try to create, really simulates things our medical treatment teams will see in real-world situations, and ensures not only their skill sets are on point, but also their level of comfort in dealing with injuries that can be difficult to see and treat such as burns.”
One of the unique aspects of Mercy is the hybrid crew of military and civilians. Working alongside the MTF, the 60 member CIVMAR crew was an integral part of the mass casualty response mission. The CIVMARs set the side port platform and launched both tender
boats to simulate an actual operation at sea. During the training period, boats loaded with eight casualties each, approached the ship and then disembarked their patients. The operation not only delivered patients as part of the MTF training, but also allowed the CIVMARs to practice bridge-to-boat-to-side port communication and the transfer of walking wounded and less-mobile patients from the moving boat to the ship, all things that will be a daily part of the in-port Pacific Partnership humanitarian mission to Southeast Asia in 2018.
“I’ve worked on hybrid crew ships before and so much of the ship’s success balances on personalities and the willingness to work together,” said Baron Garvey, Mercy’s Cargo Mate. “The Mercy team had developed a high functioning interdependency that allows both commands to achieve more when working together than they could alone. Mercy is truly a team. We might have two separate commands and command structures, but neither can accomplish our mission without the cooperation of the other.”
According to Garvey, the underway period also allowed the ship’s crew to complete many checks required by the Coast Guard and other regulatory bodies that can’t be done while the ship is pier side. While underway, they also seized the chance to run through numerous test memos for their upcoming Ship Material Assessment and Readiness Testing (SMART) inspection.
“While not everything worked like we hoped, it provided the time and opportunity to identify shortcomings so we can be better prepared for our inspections and ultimately ready for activation when the time comes,” explained Garvey.
MERCEX is a quarterly training exercise designed to keep Mercy’s crew prepared to rapidly respond to an emergency. Normally held in port, the ability to get underway allows the crew to experience the actual environment they will be working in during a deployment and to adapt their skill to the unique environment of the hospital ship.
MERCEX is part of a series of training evolutions, inspections and qualifications that Mercy will undergo in preparation for her Pacific Partnership humanitarian deployment in the spring of 2018.