Airport creates mass casualty incident
Sitting motionless in a field strewn with bodies and debris, Owen King labored to draw each breath. The air was thick with the smoke of smoldering fires and the moans of passengers from a plane shattered against the runway.
King waited as firefighters extinguished nearby blazes and emergency medical technicians worked with other immobilized passengers, directing those able to walk toward an ambulance. His wounds, a deep gouge in his broken nose and a chest injury, would have to wait until all of the other passengers were attended to.
In all, more than 40 emergency responders from several Gunnison agencies turned out to fight fires, attend to 49 “injured” volunteers, test equipment and hone their skills at a full-scale simulation at the Gunnison/Crested Butte Regional Airport on Wednesday, September 17.
The scene entailed a regional jet carrying 70 passengers crashing during its landing, with one old school bus representing the fuselage and another sporting a tail fin. Airplane seats and unclaimed suitcases that had been collected over the years were put to use as props strewn over the runway and scarecrow-looking dummies played the part of the dead.
“Controlled chaos that would be a little more controlled if this were a real situation,” is how one firefighter described the exercise on his way to a fire burning in a charred oil drum.
The exercise was part of a Federal Aviation Administration mandate that requires large-scale training at airports every three years. But the event experienced by responders last week exceeds the standard for simulated disaster set by the FAA.
Instead of the usual scenario that is restricted to the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting (ARFF) personnel attending to a mock plane crash at the airport, around 20 firefighters and hazardous materials responders from the Gunnison Fire Department, 14 EMTs and a dozen police and sheriff’s deputies were added to the mix.
“Here in Gunnison we wanted to test the whole system. When we built the scenario we asked all of the players involved from the area ‘What do you want to test?’ At the hospital, we asked how many victims they want transported all at once and we asked those kinds of questions to everyone. Afterwards we had a debriefing when we talked about what went right and what went wrong,” says airport manager John DeVore.
Emergency responders, when asked what the best thing about the event was, all said the entire drill was one major thing that went right, because it gave them an opportunity to coordinate their responses to a controlled event.
“When these things happen you all need to be on the same page. That’s really important and that is what these trainings provide: a chance to make sure we’re on the same page,” says Captain Chris Wilson of the Gunnison Police Department.
One thing that went wrong was the communications system that all of the responders were supposed to be a part of. Instead of getting a direct line of communication from a firefighter to the incident command, the firefighters were at times able to talk only to each other.
“We are working on that to figure out why that happened and to see how we can fix it. We’re there to look at the screw-ups, like where staging was supposed to take place, what mechanical problems, if any, we encountered, did we fail to give a good size-up of the situation to responders coming in. That’s the kind of information we want so we know what we need to work on in the future,” says DeVore.
In another situation, firefighters attending to a wounded victim requiring a stretcher were unsure of how the straps that secure the patient worked. They were able to take the time to understand the system on the newly purchased stretcher that would not be available in a real situation.
The lessons learned by emergency crews during the drill can be applied to most situations involving many victims, but most of the preparation for accidents at the airport falls on the shoulders of the eight ARFF personnel, who are the first to respond to any incident on the airport grounds. They have lighter monthly trainings that take an entire day and annual weeklong certification trainings that often require out-of-state travel.
According to DeVore, some of that training offers ARFF personnel a chance to fight jet fuel fires that burn hotter and different from the propane fires used in the simulation. The simulated fires were controlled from the command center and had heat sensors at their base so when a threshold temperature was reached, the fire would go down.
After the fires were out and the EMTs had done all they could for the wounded, the drill continued at the Gunnison Valley Hospital, which took on a surge of more than 20 new patients.
The hospital’s one scheduled doctor got the help of five extra doctors and all of the nursing and support staff needed to accommodate them.
The hospital’s chief executive officer, Randy Phelps, echoed the need to prepare. “We’ve [participated in the exercise] in the past and we find it a great opportunity to test ourselves and make sure we’re ready just in case something like this ever happens, but I hope it doesn’t,” he said.