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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The Story You Haven’t Heard: How the Northwest Healthcare Response Network Saved Lives After a Tragic Tour Vehicle Crash

You likely have not heard of the tragic September 2015 Ride the Ducks tour vehicle crash that killed five students and injured 71 individuals on Seattle’s Aurora Bridge. With almost all of the fatalities and injuries affecting foreign national students and tourists from 14 different countries and nearly 60 people requiring critical hospital care, it is easy to see how this could have been a widespread, national story. Thanks to Seattle’s Northwest Healthcare Response Network health care coalition (HCC) and its members, it was not. All of the injured were triaged and transferred from the bridge to seven area hospitals within an hour of the incident. The incident made local newscasts, but the HCC’s coordinated, lifesaving response meant that the tragedy did not develop into a magnitude that made national news headlines.

The Northwest Healthcare Response Network is a non-profit organization with diverse membership, including hospitals, emergency medical services, emergency management organizations, blood centers, public health agencies, and others. The HCC works to ensure that each member has the necessary medical equipment and supplies, real-time information, communication systems, and trained health care personnel to respond to emergencies, such as the Aurora Bridge crash, to save lives.

Immediately following the crash, area hospitals were notified to update their bed availability in WATrac, the HPP-funded statewide communication, patient tracking, and incident management system. Armed with real-time WATrac information and years of practice through HPP-funded mass casualty incident and medical surge exercises, Network members were able to efficiently distribute patients and resources between hospitals, enabling all of the injured to receive lifesaving care within an hour of the crash and preventing any one facility from becoming overwhelmed. Throughout the response, the Network served as the command center for coordination and information sharing between HCC members and other critical stakeholders, such as local government officials and national investigators; for example, the Network coordinated patient tracking information through WATrac to support family reunification efforts. The HCC’s response coordination was instrumental to preventing the crash from becoming an even greater tragedy and warranting headlines around the country.

The Network’s crash response clearly demonstrated the HCC's lifesaving role in coordinating health care organizations in the Seattle community during disasters and emergencies. The incident helped the Network identify capabilities that could be enhanced even further for future responses, such as refined protocols to prevent hospitals from being burdened by requests for information. The crash response also highlighted the need to continually engage regional emergency preparedness partners so that they are familiar with patient tracking operations and legal limitations on information sharing.

To build on and share these lessons learned with the Seattle community, the Network worked with partners and stakeholders during the year after the crash on strategies for improving coordination and information sharing. This effort culminated in an emergency planning session led by the Seattle Office of Emergency Management to educate Seattle’s regional foreign consular community on disaster response operations in case another incident with so many foreign national victims should arise. The Network also worked with ASPR’s Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (TRACIE) to develop guidance on protecting patient privacy during disasters so that other health care coalitions around the country can benefit from the Network’s lessons learned. As a result of the Network’s efforts, Seattle and communities around the country are better equipped to save lives during disasters and emergencies, preventing tragedies from growing to a degree that makes them nationally known.

“HPP impacted every aspect of our response,” reflected Onora Lien, the Network’s Executive Director. “Without years of HPP support, we would not have had the plans, personnel, equipment, systems, or relationships to respond as effectively as we did and prevent this from becoming a greater tragedy. HPP funding and guidance have been instrumental in preparing our community across a number of variables – I can’t imagine how we would have coordinated our response to the crash without HPP.”

  • This page last reviewed: May 31, 2017