Ministry of Health and NZDF test readiness for catastrophic event

Manatū Hauora | Ministry of Health New Zealand Medical Assistance Team (NZMAT) and New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) health teams are combining for the first time to test their response to a catastrophic event in Aotearoa New Zealand.

About 50 personnel from both organisations are taking part in Exercise Kotahitanga, being held at Trentham Military Camp in Upper Hutt from 24 October-2 November 2023.

The NZMAT and NZDF health teams will test how health facilities, equipment and staff across the organisations work together in a deployable health facility, following a catastrophic event.

“We’re looking at the response that might be needed if there is a major event such as an earthquake within the Hikurangi Trench, off the North Island’s east coast,” Director-General of Health Dr Diana Sarfati said.

“In such an event, there could be many deaths, thousands of injuries, displacement of people and substantial damage to hospitals and other health facilities.”

NZMAT has previously responded to offshore events, such as the Samoa measles outbreak in 2019, and to the Cook Islands and Fiji during the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as natural disasters in the Pacific.

“Exercise Kotahitanga will test our ability to provide healthcare to the population at home following a catastrophic event,” Dr Sarfati said.

The NZMAT fixed facility can treat up to 100 patients a day, while the mobile facility includes a team of people who can reach remote areas and treat up to 50 people a day.

“This joint exercise provides an opportunity for trained clinical personnel and other deployment partners to familiarise themselves with the facilities,” Dr Sarfati said.

Pacific nations observers, including teams from Australia, Fiji and Samoa, will attend, as will World Health Organisation representatives.

Major James Josephs, of the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps, said the exercise would involve practising setting up the facilities, as well as allowing the NZDF to understand the role of NZMAT and identifying mutual support opportunities.

The NZDF facility, known as a “Role 2”, provides advanced trauma management and emergency medical treatment involving surgical interventions, as part of a military treatment chain.

A large number of the Role 2 staff are Reserve Force personnel, who generally already work in the health system, and the capability is continuing to be developed by the NZDF. There may be opportunities in future for the Role 2 to be deployed, complementing an NZMAT response.

“We recently deployed the Role 2 personnel in an exercise carried out at Whanganui Hospital. Now we are seeing how we can move our facilities,” Major Josephs said.

“Our ‘Role 2’ facilities are smaller than the NZMAT but it is intended that we are very mobile. Once prepared for departure, we intend to deploy in a C-130 Hercules or two trucks and then be set up in a matter of hours.”

It was exciting to hold an exercise alongside the NZMAT teams for the first time and see how the two could operate together, Major Josephs said.

About the New Zealand Medical Assistance Team (NZMAT)

  • NZMAT is a multidisciplinary team providing health specialists with skills, qualifications and training to support a health emergency response.
  • There are more than 220 NZMAT volunteers across New Zealand, including doctors, nurses, logisticians, pharmacist, physiotherapists, public health staff and paramedics.
  • They have been deployed to support health services overseas, particularly in the South Pacific. Some examples include responses to sudden onset disasters such as tropical cyclone Winston (Vanuatu) and public health responses such as the measles outbreak in Samoa in 2019.

NZMAT is part of the Emergency Management Group with Te Pou Hauora Tūmatanui – the Public Health Agency, within Manatū Hauora – the Ministry of Health.

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