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It's a new day for emergency services, preparedness in Mississippi

Published on Monday, August 13, 2018

Media Contact: Ruth Cummins

Dr. Damon Darsey and Dr. Jonathan Wilson had a dream -- really, more a resolve to make a dream come true – after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005.

In the hours and days following the storm that killed more than 230 in Mississippi and wreaked staggering devastation, the state’s emergency responders had no idea of the challenges they would face to deliver medical care, and no idea how challenging it would be to do something we all take for granted: talk to each other.

Darsey, then a paramedic with UMMC’s AirCare medical helicopter transport, and Wilson, then a UMMC adult emergency department nurse, vowed to seek solutions so that next time, Mississippi would be ready.

“We began to dream about the possibilities of what could be emergency communications,” Darsey said.

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Mississippi emergency responders, shown here in the wake of Katrina, provide medical and communications aid to communities stricken by disasters including hurricanes and tornadoes.

Lessons learned from that record disaster galvanized efforts by Wilson, Darsey and the state emergency response community to create Mississippi’s first comprehensive emergency medical response system. That network includes the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services, or MCES. The Center was established in 2014 by the University of Mississippi Medical Center to expand Mississippi’s ability to maintain medical communications for disaster and emergency preparedness and response.

On Thursday, the dream was realized. Ground was broken for MCES’ first permanent home that combines all of its services under one roof.

“Right now, we are spread out across campus, and our campus is the size of a small city. This will get us all back in the same area to improve efficiency and work flow, and to better manage our projects,” said Darsey, associate professor of emergency medicine and MCES medical director.

“This is a dream come true for many of us,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this for many years, and now we’re physically able to do it.”

Dr. Damon Darsey, associate professor of emergency medicine and medical director of the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services, explains the center's mission during groundbreaking ceremonies.
Dr. Damon Darsey, associate professor of emergency medicine and medical director of the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services, explains the center's mission during groundbreaking ceremonies.

The state-of-the-art facility, with space for the federally funded Mississippi Integrated Public Safety Communications Center, will allow better coordination between the state’s emergency response agencies and quicker deployment of medical care to sites of disasters or emergencies.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran led the effort to shepherd almost $20 million in federal grant funding in jeopardy of being canceled to build a home for MCES and outfit it with the latest technology. Construction is set to begin this fall and is estimated at 18 months.

“This is a game-changer,” Wicker said during the August 9 groundbreaking ceremony held on the northeast corner of UMMC’s campus, near where the center will be built. “This is a quantum leap for Mississippi. We’re going to saves lives by bringing to fruition what we are here for today.”

Partners in the grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service are the office of Gov. Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Wireless Information Network, MSWIN for short, and the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services.

“Public safety has always been my number one priority, and this new facility for MCES will give our first responders better coordination and quicker response times to disasters,” Bryant said in a statement.

Construction on the 20,000-square-foot Mississippi Center for Emergency Services on the UMMC campus will begin in fall 2018 with an estimation construction timeline of 18 months.
Construction on the 20,000-square-foot Mississippi Center for Emergency Services on the UMMC campus will begin in fall 2018 with an estimated construction timeline of 18 months.

The single-story, 20,000-square-foot building will house Mississippi MED-COM, the 24-hour communications center that coordinates patient care and transport with emergency response agencies, hospitals and first responders statewide. MED-COM now operates out of cramped quarters near UMMC’s Adult Emergency Department.

The facility will be a user-friendly base of operations for projects that will advance the state’s medical response and emergency critical care capabilities. It will include a 10,000-square-foot training and simulation area for emergency responders. Among the scenarios: Replicating limitations to broadband connections in the state’s rural corners so that first responders can brainstorm how to communicate around it.

And, it will bring together emergency transport teams, their vast deployable gear, and administrative support under one roof.

In coordination with emergency response agencies and partners statewide, “we stand ready for the next disaster, if it occurs,” Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, said during the event. “We’re in a very different place now than we were (when Katrina hit) on August 29, 2005.

“When you see all of our partners here, we know that great things can happen at UMMC.”

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, chats with former Gov. Haley Barbour at groundbreaking ceremonies for the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services.
Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, chats with former Gov. Haley Barbour at groundbreaking ceremonies for the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services.

Under former Gov. Haley Barbour’s leadership, the state of Mississippi in 2010 won a $73 million Broadband Technology Opportunity Program federal award to develop a state-of-the-art public safety communications and pre-hospital medical communications system. That grant was put on hold in 2014 in efforts not to duplicate a federal program deploying similar technology. 

Instead, Mississippi in 2016 was approved to move forward with a modified version of the grant. That modification allowed for the expansion of MSWIN, development of a Mobile Tele-Assist System and construction of the Mississippi Integrated Public Safety Communications Center at UMMC.

The MSWIN expansion includes enhanced data-carrying capabilities and the opportunity for research and development on the use, training and policy development around mobile telemedicine.

In a disaster, Darsey said, “people don’t always understand the power of talking to each other. Many people don’t understand the power of a black box, but it is instrumental to everything we do.”

Wilson, today UMMC’s chief administrative officer, and Dr. Alan Jones, professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, are MCES’ administrative leaders. Wilson was among eight UMMC staffers deployed in the wake of Katrina to assess damages at Hancock County Medical Center.

Their mission quickly changed to one of medical response as they gave desperately needed help to hospital staff, treating the wounded and preparing patients for transport.

“We’ve taken those lessons and applied them to construction of this building. Everything is designed to support all of the needs of the medical community and emergency services,” Wilson said prior to the ceremony. “This building gives us the ability to advance that learning process to improve patient care, not just during a disaster, but every day.”

UMMC's AirCare, Mississippi's most advanced medical helicopter transport, is a key emergency response vehicle flown in conjunction with the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services.
UMMC's AirCare, Mississippi's most advanced medical helicopter transport, is a key emergency response vehicle flown in conjunction with the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services.

The facility will provide a second campus helipad for UMMC’s AirCare, the state’s most advanced medical helicopter transport. AirCare will still land on the roof of UMMC’s critical care hospital to deliver patients for treatment, but will be staffed and deployed from MCES.

“We can pull the helicopters inside the building for use in our simulation training,” Darsey said. “The new space will protect our assets from inclement weather.”

UMMC can cross-train first responders by bringing to MCES aircraft from partnering emergency response agencies, such as the Mississippi National Guard or the state Department of Public Safety. That could include U.S. Army Lakota helicopters and National Guard Blackhawk rescue helicopters. “We want what we do to be aligned with what they do,” Wilson said.

The facility reflects the three missions of the Medical Center, Wilson said. “It has a component around education and training, a section that’s about clinical care in disasters and everyday emergencies, and the infrastructure to do research.

“This building is another example of the recipe for success that we see here at the Medical Center,” he said. “We take highly trained and educated personnel and give them access to advanced technology and equipment, and that really benefits patient care. We can apply that same recipe to future technology and training.”

Darsey posed a question at the groundbreaking. “Where do we go from here?”

 “This building will allow us to really stretch the envelope,” he said. “Now we have a platform to jump from.”