Prehospital and Disaster Medicine

Special Report

Lessons Learned from the Aeromedical Disaster Relief Activities Following the Great East Japan Earthquake

Hisashi Matsumotoa1 c1, Tomokazu Motomuraa1, Yoshiaki Haraa1, Yukiko Masudaa1, Kunihiro Mashikoa1, Hiroyuki Yokotaa2 and Yuichi Koidoa3

a1 Shock and Trauma Center, Chiba Hokusoh Hospital, Nippon Medical School, Chiba, Japan

a2 Department of Emergency and Critical Care Medicine, Nippon Medical School, Tokyo, Japan

a3 National Hospital Organization Disaster Medical Center, Tokyo, Japan


Introduction Since 2001, a Japanese national project has developed a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) system (“doctor-helicopter”) and a central Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) composed of mobile and trained medical teams for rapid deployment during the response phase of a disaster.

Problem In Japan, the DMAT Research Group has focused on command and control of doctor-helicopters in future disasters. The objective of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of such planning, as well as the problems encountered in deploying the doctor-helicopter fleet with DMAT members following the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Methods This study was undertaken to examine the effectiveness of aeromedical disaster relief activities following the Great East Japan Earthquake and to evaluate the assembly and operations of 15 doctor-helicopter teams dispatched for patient evacuation with medical support.

Results Fifteen DMATs from across Japan were deployed from March 11th through March 13th to work out of two doctor-helicopter base hospitals. The dispatch center at each base hospital directed its own doctor-helicopter fleet under the command of DMAT headquarters to transport seriously injured or ill patients out of hospitals located in the disaster area. Disaster Medical Assistance Teams transported 149 patients using the doctor-helicopters during the first five days after the earthquake. The experiences and problems encountered point to the need for DMATs to maintain direct control over 1) communication between DMAT headquarters and dispatch centers; 2) information management concerning patient transportation; and 3) operation of the doctor-helicopter fleet during relief activities. As there is no rule of prioritization for doctor-helicopters to refuel ahead of other rotorcraft, many doctor-helicopters had to wait in line to refuel.

Conclusion The “doctor-helicopter fleet” concept was vital to Japan's disaster medical assistance and rescue activities. The smooth and immediate dispatch of the doctor-helicopter fleet must occur under the direct control of the DMAT, independent from local government authority. Such a command and control system for dispatching the doctor-helicopter fleet is strongly recommended, and collaboration with local government authorities concerning refueling priority should be addressed.

H Matsumoto, T Motomura, Y Hara, Y Masuda, K Mashiko, H Yokota, Y Koido. Lessons learned from the aeromedical disaster relief activities during the Great East Japan Earthquake. Prehosp Disaster Med. 2013;28(2):1-4 .

(Received August 10 2011)

(Accepted October 18 2011)

(Revised October 27 2011)

(Online publication January 22 2013)


  • Disaster Medical Assistance Team;
  • disaster medical relief;
  • doctor-helicopter;
  • Emergency Medical Service;
  • Great East Japan Earthquake;
  • helicopter


  • DMAT::Disaster Medical Assistance Team;
  • HEMS::helicopter emergency medical service;
  • MHLW::Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare;
  • SDF::Self Defense Force


c1 Correspondence: Hisashi Matsumoto, MD, PhD Hokusoh HEMS/Shock and Trauma Center Chiba Hokusoh Hospital Nippon Medical School 1715, Kamakari, Inzai, Chiba Pref., 270-1964, Japan E-mail