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A Madison firefighter guides a simulated victim to safety. In the exercise, the "victims" were triaged, then transported to hospitals in Huntsville, Madison and Decatur that also participated in the drill. (Record photo/Charles Molineaux)

Archived Story

Mock plane crash works out real emergency response

Published 5:13pm Saturday, September 7, 2013

By Charles Molineaux

HUNTSVILLE — An expansive disaster drill at Huntsville International Airport – complete with a mock burning jetliner and bloodied simulated victims – successfully put emergency responders through their paces Sept. 4. The drill also revealed procedures in need of work, airport administrators said.

The exercise, labeled a “full-scale response drill,” brought in more than 250 participants from the airport and 29 area partner agencies including police, fire, HEMSI and nearby hospitals.

The fictional setup involved a Boeing 717 passenger jet crash. The plane in the scenario was actually a metal cylinder billowing smoke, which the airport’s specialized ARFF emergency vehicles took on during the drill.

But the crash and fire were more a backdrop for the real work.

“It wasn’t about putting out a fire or anything like that,” clarified Port of Huntsville Operations Director Kevin Vandeberg.

The scenario was meant to concentrate primarily on triage, communications and relations with the media.

Seventy volunteers exercised their acting skills as crash victims, many of them adorned with dramatic “moulage” makeup simulating injuries.

“It really adds to the authenticity of the exercise,” said Vandeberg.

Using the newly adopted SALT triage system, emergency crews had to properly prioritize the pretend victims on color-coded mats.

“We had a couple of glitches,” said HEMSI Chief Operations Officer Don Webster. “Setting up the landing zone for the helicopter was one. Keeping our numbers balanced to get the patients to the appropriate hospitals – that was a big improvement from the last drill.”

That’s crucial, said Vandeberg. “The last thing you want is for someone to be waiting for a physician in an emergency room that’s overwhelmed,” he said.

The exercise also highlighted the greater use, and challenges, of social media in communicating with the public.

“Whereas before we would have totally relied on sending a press release out, now we’ll do Facebook and Twitter,” said airport Marketing Director Barbie Peek.

“My iPad’s internet wasn’t working, so that was a hiccup that we overcame,” Public Relations Manager Chantel Minish added. “Thankfully, we had a backup.”

Vandeberg said participants will release a complete analysis of the drill’s ups and downs in an “after-action report” in about a month.

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