Disaster team hopes to draw new recruits

SW Fla. group gears up for storm season

By MARY WOZNIAK
MWOZNIAK@NEWS-PRESS.COM
Published by news-press.com on June 6, 2005


INFORMATION
• The FL2DMAT is typically deployed in groups of 35 people for 14 days at a time.
• The team meets at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the American Red Cross building, Fort Myers AAA office, 2516 Colonial Boulevard, Fort Myers.
• Sponsored by: The American Red Cross, Lee County Chapter
• Paid by: Federal Emergency Management Agency
• For information or to apply:
Call Connie Bowles at 849-9234
Call Jose Rivera at 841-0868
• Go to Web site: www.dmatfl2.org

A crack medical team of Southwest Florida civilians who mobilize in response to natural or manmade disasters is looking for new members.

The team, based in Punta Gorda, is gearing up for the new hurricane season with a new, 6,000-square-foot storage space, three new trucks and newly-replenished medical supplies, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Team members got together Saturday to move the supplies from the old storage space, a

damaged warehouse at the Charlotte County Airport, to the new warehouse on Manzana Avenue in downtown Punta Gorda.

Charley's high winds caused structural damage to the airport warehouse and the old medical equipment was damaged, blown away or looted before the warehouse could be secured, said Jose Rivera, lead paramedic for the team.

These included tents for establishing field hospitals and generators, he said. "We carry everything from bandages to chest tubes to portable ventilators." The team's formal name is the acronym FL2DMAT, which stands for Florida Disaster Medical Assistance Team.

The number two means it is the second of six such teams in Florida, formed in 1990, said Connie Bowles of Cape Coral, the team's administrative officer.

The Southwest Florida team has 120 members from Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, said Robert Hendrickson, team commander and a Punta Gorda paramedic. The nearest teams are in Tampa and Miami, he said.

Members are civilian medical personnel, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, respiratory therapists, pharmacists x-ray technicians, mental health professionals and others, he said.

The team is not looking for a specific number of new recruits. Those who are interested must be medical professionals.

The team answers the call when local, state or federal government officials call for help in a disaster — not only during a hurricane, he said.

They establish field hospitals and provide emergency medical care for the sick and injured. They do not do surgery in the field, he said.

"We get to go to areas where other people don't want to be. We get to be part of the recovery and relief effort."

When the team is deployed, they are paid by FEMA.

Rivera, who lives in Fort Myers, called the team "a great combination of people" with the right attitude and the right skills.

He's belonged to the team since 1994. Deploying to Ground Zero during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack cemented Rivera's resolve he made the right decision.

"We spent 15-20 days over there. We provided care for firefighters as they kept digging for the people. I saw then it was just like a big family working for their own."

Julie Kszych, a nurse who lives in Fort Myers and works at Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center, also said the team is "like a family." A member since 1993, she recalls how rewarding it was working with Kosovo refugees during an immunization effort at Fort Dix in New Jersey in May, 1999.

She also recalls the drama of being deployed to back up an FBI SWAT team at the Olympic bombings in Atlanta in July, 1996.

"Even though I get paid by the government, I would do it for free," she said.

In addition to taking a professional hit from the hurricane, many members took a personal hit, Hendrickson said. They sustained damage to their homes and property from Charley. Some, including Hendrickson, lost their homes entirely.

Team members are typically not supposed to respond to a disaster in their own backyard, instead accepting help from outside teams coming in, he said. "But this was so traumatic, that we were grabbing resources from wherever we could. We live here. That's one of our jobs, too — assist people in the local community."

Once Hurricane Frances hit, the team was fully deployed elsewhere, including staffing special care centers in West Palm Beach, he said.