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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of November 6 - 12, 2002


Firefighters respond to simulated crash

Airport rescue operation deemed a success

Express Staff Writer

The thermometer at Friedman Memorial Airport had risen to only 12 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday morning. Flat, gray light and a biting wind made conditions feel even colder.

In other words, the weather was perfect—perfect for testing rescue response to a mass-casualty plane crash in the cold.

Local firefighters extinguish a fire in an old bus representing the front half of a downed plane. Express photo by Willy Cook

The Federal Aviation Administration requires an emergency-response exercise at the airport every three years. This year’s simulation also doubled as the fall segment of local fire departments’ bi-annual training.

Two old buses were placed just south of the runway, representing the two halves of a broken-apart commercial plane. One bus was set on fire and the other contained the 19 "victims"—some of them airport and airline employees who had generously volunteered, and some sheriff’s work program participants who had no choice in the matter.

Each victim carried a little sign around his or her neck with a list of injuries. Part of the challenge to rescuers was to conduct a triage operation to determine which victims to carry out first.

In reality, hypothermia was the most likely condition the victims faced while sitting or lying in their appointed spots for the approximately half hour before the exercise got under way and rescuers arrived.

"We almost got frostbite before anything happened," one victim said afterward.

The action began with a call from the airport’s tower through a multi-pager system that relayed it to emergency responders—"We’ve got an E-120 (commercial passenger plane) down in the southwest corner of the airfield."

In three minutes, the airport’s 16-ton crash-response vehicle was at the scene, showering the burning bus with a mixture of foam and water from its revolving turret. But not too much—most of the fire was left burning for the remaining fire fighters to put out, as well as to add realism to the scene.

"In a real airplane crash, most of the smoke would be entirely black," said Ketchum Fire Chief Greg Schwab. "It makes the fire fighting more difficult, and it makes the rescue more difficult."

Burning foam seats in the bus helped to create that effect.

Paramedics conduct a triage exercise with "victims" seated in lawn chairs to stay off the snow-covered ground. Express photo by Willy Cook

Four minutes later, the first engines and ambulances from the Hailey Fire Department arrived. In the meantime, a mutual-aid call had gone out to the Ketchum, Bellevue and Wood River Fire and Rescue departments. In all, five engines and five ambulances responded.

While fire fighters were dousing the fire, ambulance crews picked up victims who had been thrown from the downed plane. Those inside had to wait until the fire was extinguished, which took 31 minutes from the time the crash was reported, and it was deemed "safe" for rescuers to enter. Part of the bus’s interior had to be cut away to get the victims out on stretchers.

Shane Quarles, a lieutenant paramedic with Wood River Fire and Rescue, was in charge of emergency medical services. He said he was pleased with his team’s performance, especially with coordination of communication.

"Communication’s always a big deal in large-scale incidents," he said.

In a post-exercise meeting at the airport office, participants critiqued some of the finer points of emergency response: whether atmospheric monitoring of the fuselage could have been quicker, more blankets could have been brought in for the victims, treatment of the walking wounded should, or should not, have been more careful. They concluded, however, that everything important went as it should have.

Of course, carting off healthy people in and around two broken-down buses with the seats and a pile of wooden pallets on fire hardly compares to the real thing. So far, local response capability to a plane crash has not been tested in reality.

"Every year, we get our share of small incidents at the airport," said Pete Kramer, the airport’s chief of operations and emergency services. "But we’ve had very few injuries and no fatalities."

Kramer said there have been a few airplane engine fires, but none that have spread to a fuselage.



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