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May 26, 2011

Md. mass-casualty ambulance bus now in service

By E.B. Furgurson III
The Capital

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — County officials yesterday unveiled a heavily equipped ambulance bus for use in mass-casualty emergencies.

The medical ambulance bus is one of two in the state and 20 nationwide and can handle 14 patients on stretchers or 26 seated passengers. It also can transport patients who use wheelchairs.

The bus could be used across the region for train or bus accidents with multiple patients or to evacuate hospitals or nursing homes. It could be used to treat heat-related emergencies at public events, or provide rest and rehabilitation for firefighters and other first responders during a protracted fire or other disaster.

The $445,000 vehicle was federally funded via the Baltimore Urban Area Security Initiative, under the Department of Homeland Security.

At a ceremony yesterday at county police and fire headquarters, County Executive John R. Leopold heralded the new apparatus.

"This is a good use of federal funding. It is going to be a tremendous asset to our region," he said. "We've seen on television what happened in Joplin, Missouri. Clearly there are going to be occasions when we need a bus that provides these services."

The unit already has been called on. When a bus carrying school kids on a field trip crashed May 12 in Centreville, the ambulance bus was dispatched but wasn't used. Earlier this month it was on site at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport for a major drill. The second Maryland unit, based in Howard County, was on site, too. After the drill the bus was put on standby as a flight came into the airport with possible landing gear problems. Luckily it was a smooth landing.

The county's bus will work out of Fire Station 21 on Dorsey Road.

The unit has an oxygen system capable of handling 23 patients simultaneously and a 20-kilowatt generator to keep it running. It's loaded with basic and advance life-support gear, several suction units to treat patient airways, and wireless communications including the latest radio hardware that can communicate with other jurisdictions.

Officials want another grant to equip the unit with wireless patient vital-sign capability that can communicate directly with area hospitals. Now emergency personnel must radio in vital signs and other information.

"The grant is in the pipeline," Deputy Chief Michael O'Donnell said of the $80,200 in funding.

Capt. Chris Schaetzly, commander of Station 21, gave a tour of the unit and emphasized its versatility.

"We can take on patients who need to be laying down, or we can fold these up and have drop-down seating," he said. "The first mission for the unit is mass casualties, the second is rehabilitation."

He said the unit could be dispatched to a nursing home in a heat wave or power outage and help keep patients stable as a temporary shelter, or to provide a place for first responders to rest and recover during an event like the brush fires in west county earlier this year.

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"We hope we never have to use it," Chief John Robert Ray said. "But when we do need it it's going to be a great resource for us to help save lives."