City in Dire Need, Joplin Aid | KCUR

City in Dire Need, Joplin Aid

May 30, 2011

Kansas City, MO – More is coming out about how a thrown-together setup was able to move the injured from Joplin's tornado.The critical need for more ambulances than the city could provide was worked out early in the disaster. In the analysis that came days later, three emergency services from the Kansas City area and a Springfield hospital turned chaos into something workable. KCUR's Dan Verbeck has more of the story.

By six o clock the morning after the EF 5 tornado hit, some 75 ambulances from three states were staging in Joplin under volunteer direction of people who'd never met, a Lees Summit battallion fire chief, a division fire chief from Liberty, a supervisor from Cox Medical Center at Springfield and an assistant chief from Kansas City Fire Department's Medical Bureau. That was Paul Piekowski. He'd brought 5 ambulances the 160 miles from Kansas City and they were working without letup from the time they got there-- "We initially went on a call immediately about 3 blocks away from their headquarters into a gymnasium that had 50 patients. I double loaded 2 of those ambulances with patients, a couple were critical , we did have an amputation ."

To show how harrowing it was, Piekowski says ambulances didn't have a working radio system so they used data in the Kansas City Fire Department computer to find their way around Joplin and to learn which area hospitals had room to take patients. Then sent the injured to them.

A critical care ambulance for injured children was sent by Childrens' Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. And according to Piekowski, the makeshift system was used until the most badly hurt had been moved to hospitals for care. He credits use of computer data for saving the day. In his words, "We actually had maps, we actually had directions."

Within 8 hours of the tornado cutting a swath across the Southwestern Missouri town, teams from Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, including the Native American Nations in Oklahoma, were learning how to work together to find survivors. Some departments had differing approaches to searching collapsed and torn apart buildings. Some search teams marked an 'X" on buildings they'd been through. The Kansas City Fire Department marked each with a painted sign noting when the search was made, who did it, the number of living and dead found inside. Dozens of ambulance teams which had never worked together, found a way.

Firefighters who work their regular daily jobs in Joplin acknowledged their Kansas City counterparts who came to help had the best technical gear they'd seen, put to practical application.

Joplin's city communication system's radios were knocked out by the storm, towers and antennae torn from their moorings. One joplin officer described his surprise when a Kansas City truck pulled up loaded with equipment, a technician climbing to top of a taller downtown building and installing a portable radio tower. And communications between commanders and search for survivors began working better.

Kansas City Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Grote was among first of the group of about fifty firefighters and medics to arrive in Joplin and, " there was no sleeping. I mean, we were working around the clock."

The work of climbing and crawling through frail and partly collapsed buildings was dangerous. Kansas City fire rescuers came out of it without serious injury.