First Responders Flex Their Disaster Plans in FAA Exercise

A simulated passenger plane crashed Monday at Santa Maria Public Airport left between 40 and 50 dead or injured and emergency services personnel scrambling.

The fiery crash was an exercise required every three years by the Federal Aviation Administration to test local emergency response.  It utilized a full-size mockup of an airplane fuselage. The wall of flames, fueled by propane inside and outside of the fuselage, proved the biggest test for firefighters and their new $1 million fire truck.

The Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) truck, which the Santa Maria Public Airport District bought with help from an FAA grant, was designed for such a disaster. It has the capability to punch a hole in the fuselage of an airplane and spray water or foam inside to extinguish a blaze.

“We’re exercising the whole Santa Barbara County (Mass Casualty Incident) protocol,” said Battalion Chief Rick Bertram. “We have a brand new crash rig, Rescue 61, so it’s been exciting for us to be able to operate that.”

As if both interior and exterior fires weren’t enough to handle, firefighters did their work to the chilling recorded screams of crash victims pleading for help.

For local emergency responders, it’s a chance to exercise all of their training under live fire conditions.  “Usually, when we train we do it in pieces. This gives us a chance to put all of those pieces together,” said Santa Maria Fire Chief Dan Orr, who had an entire shift of firefighters working the drill.

In addition to city firefighters — Station 6 is at the Airport — Santa Barbara County Fire and Sheriff’s Departments, Guadalupe Fire, American Medical Response ambulances, Cal Star helicopters, Marian Regional Medical Center and even agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation were part of the drill.

“Communication is a big part of every incident and it actually will determine if the incident went well or not,” Bertram said.

General Manager Chris Hastert, who ran the airport’s emergency response center on the opposite side of the airport, said he thought the drill and communication went well. He said the Red Cross also helped out, setting up a mock family response center in the Santa Maria Radisson.  “Personally I’ve learned a few things I could do better in my response,” he said. “I don’t have as much experience operating an emergency response center as some managers.”  Hastert said he’d be scheduling some additional training soon.

PCPA costume and make-up artists also played a big role in the drill, decorating approximately 50 college students and other volunteers with a variety of gruesome injuries ranging from cuts and burns to torso impalement. Following the crash, bodies littered a field near the drill site.

Bertram said it’s the job of emergency responders to limit the numbers of casualties.  “It’s really about life safety for the victims and also the rescuers,” Bertram said. “We learn something new each time.”

10/8/13 •  By Brian Bullock/ bbullock@santamariatimes.com