Officials Ponder if Las Vegas is Prepared for Major Medical Emergency

Dr. Aaron Meltzer spent a week in November learning about medical care during emergencies and disasters in Israel, a country that handles multiple-casualty incidents on a regular basis.

He returned to Las Vegas with questions about U.S. cities and how they have prepared for large-scale medical emergencies. In Israel, the public gets regular reminders on how the safety network functions. In the United States, while emergency planners may be working behind the scenes on comprehensive plans, the public often does not notice until an emergency occurs.

“The United States and Vegas are obviously different situations,” Meltzer said. “When I returned though, I was thinking about all of the cities I’ve been to (and wondering) how prepared are they really?” Meltzer has lived here for the past five years after practicing for most of his career in Northern California

Meltzer’s questions were only amplified after a series of disasters this year.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, approximately 300 injured people were treated at 26 Boston-area hospitals. That same week, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded, sending more than 200 inured people to area hospitals. Monday, after a devastatingly large and powerful tornado ripped through Oklahoma, 200 people, including 50 children, were treated for injuries.

So, how is Southern Nevada prepared for a large-scale medical emergency? After all, Clark County has one of the largest tourist corridors in the world in the Las Vegas Strip.

In a recent interview, while making an argument for funding from the federal government for security initiatives, Metro Police Sheriff Doug Gillespie summed up the case for Clark County as a potential target for terrorists.

“It’s very difficult to go someplace, somewhere, where people don’t know Las Vegas,” Gillespie said. “The other thing is the volume of people that are here, in a very small area. … And then when you factor in other aspects of what’s here, from the Hoover Dam, to Nellis Air Force Base, Creech Air Force Base, to 20 of the 25 largest hotels in the world, 156,000 hotel rooms and the seventh-busiest airport …”

Meltzer asked himself: How would Las Vegas cope with a disaster that produced hundreds of wounded? How would the large resorts make sure ambulances could get to their properties in an emergency? How do the valley’s hospitals coordinate to triage and treat the injured? How would emergency services handle a chemical attack?

It turns out a collection of county officials, medical professionals, hospital administrators and private-sector security and emergency management personnel have been focused on refining their strategies for a decade, and they have solid answers to Meltzer’s questions.

After 9/11, federal and local coordination on disaster mitigation rose to an unprecedented level, aided by funding from the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Clark County put together a mass-casualty plan as part of its overall emergency management plan in 2003, updated it in 2005 and is revising it again this year, according to Irene Navis, plans and operations coordinator for the Clark County Fire Department Office of Emergency Management. Specific details of the plans are not public for security reasons.

Also in 2003, the Legislature established the Nevada Commission on Homeland Security, and the processes for handling various emergencies were thoroughly evaluated.

“I can say with confidence that Southern Nevada is as prepared as anyone else in the United States, because we have major events all the time. We are constantly planning for large events with thousands of people, from the regular boxing matches to the marathon, Electric Daisy Carnival and New Year’s Eve. No other city has the volume of events that we have. It’s the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World,'” said Dale Carrison, chairman of emergency services at University Medical Center and the former chairman of the Nevada Commission on Homeland Security.

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