Mock crash tests rescue reactions

By Julian J. Ramos/Staff Writer

Although no grades will be handed out after a drill simulating a plane crash Wednesday at Santa Maria Public Airport, officials from the city and the airport said the exercise served as a valuable test run for a real-life incident.

Coordinated chiefly by the Santa Maria Public Airport District and the Santa Maria Fire Department, which is contracted by the airport to handle fire services, the drill is a test of coordinated emergency services between several area agencies, officials said.

A full-scale drill, held every three years, is an important test of the effectiveness of the airport’s emergency plan, said Chris Hastert, airport general manager.  Overall, Hastert said Wednesday’s results were satisfactory.  “I couldn’t be more pleased,” Hastert said.

The mass-casualty scenario was meant to simulate a 30-passenger airliner crash on the runway with a post-collision fire and leaking fuel. A yellow school bus served as the downed aircraft and a plume of simulated white smoke from a canister represented the fire in the aircraft.

Hancock College Emergency Medical Services (EMS) students acted as victims for the drill, while others portrayed families and friends.

About 100 members from various agencies — American Medical Response, county fire and Sheriff’s departments, and the county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, for example — participated.

There is no pass or fail for the exercise, rather it is a valuable tool to gauge what works and what does not, Hastert said.

Going over notes detailing observations from evaluators is the next step for airport and city officials.  The process is anticipated to begin next week.

It was the first such drill at the Santa Maria Airport, also known as SMX, for Hastert since becoming general manager in October 2008.

The two-hour exercise took between two and three months to plan, and was the first in which the city fire force was one of the lead agencies organizing the scenario, said Jeff Jones, Santa Maria’s fire chief.  There were many critical, moderate, and minor injuries along with 17 fatalities among the 29 souls on board, he said, describing the drill during a press conference.

Shortly after the mock plane crash, the city’s “crash” unit vehicle assigned at the airport sprayed water from a cannon to simulate a foam blanket around the aircraft that would allow the victims and firefighters to exit the fuselage safely.  Victims were taken off the aircraft and into a hangar where they were divided up by the severity of their injuries.

American Red Cross staff members were on hand to support first responders to the incident and to aid crash victims and their families.

The airport remained open for normal operations during the exercise, which was held in an area away from the runway and close to the airport fire station and the former Space Coast Flight Center facility.

In August 2008, the city assumed the airport contract from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department to provide Aircraft Rescue Firefighting (ARFF) services as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration.  Under FAA regulations, the airport must supply aircraft rescue staffing during every takeoff and landing of commercial flights and large charters. The specialized staff must be on hand to respond 15 minutes before and after each flight.

Posted in Local on Thursday, May 6, 2010