Mock crash: Preparing for disaster

Rescue workers use drill to hone skills for airport emergencies

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

Juneau police arrive as an airplane full of mothers, children and neighbors in the wrong place at the wrong time is engulfed in flames. The bloodied and broken huddle together among the other walking wounded as firefighters and medical staff learn how to walk away from the ones they can't save.

This isn't supposed to happen in Juneau - but it could, law enforcement officials said Thursday as they practiced their emergency response training near the National Guard hangar at the Juneau Airport.

Police Lt. Walt Boman, who helped coordinate the effort, said this sort of exercise is required by the Federal Aviation Administration every three years for the airport to keep its FAA certification.

But Boman said it's equally important to the agencies participating in the drill, which included police, airport rescue personnel, emergency medical technicians, Bartlett Regional Hospital staff and Capital City Fire and Rescue, among others.

Fire Marshal Randy Waters said if Juneau ever had a mass-casualty disaster the city would have to depend on the staff and equipment it has without looking outside for help.

"We're isolated," he said. "We can't immediately call on mutual aid from outside. So you have to use every one of your resources because it would be a while before outside help could get here."

The four-hour simulation took place near an emergency landing runway at the airport.

The first firefighters on the scene arrived in a large, green, specialty vehicle called the airport rescue firefighting truck. It allows one person to battle a fire by using water turrets mounted to the top of the truck, operated from inside, firefighters said.

Incident commander for the scenario, Max Mielke, divided his crew into teams of firefighters and EMTs. He then appointed team leaders in an effort to keep track of personnel.

"We do this to keep track and watch out for one another," he said. "It lets us know right away if one of us is unaccounted for. We don't want to lose anyone. We don't want to become victims ourselves."

Boman said police often function as crowd control in a situation like this. In this scenario, the police bomb squad was responsible for finding the luggage carrying the bomb that caused the explosion, and for preserving the crime scene.

To recreate fire from an explosion, police lit flares around two school buses, which simulated the plane, filled with high school kids pretending to be in various stages of distress.

"I'm not breathing. I'm dying," said Ashley Morin, 14, who was painted a death-like white for her part.

"It scares me that this kind of stuff could happen and has happened," she said. "... But I think it's good that even though we are a small town people still care enough to want to help and be on their toes if this did ever happen."

Each student held a card stating his or her condition and answers to questions EMTs should be asking. EMTs entered the bus and first evacuated people who could walk on their own.

The ones left on the bus were dying, dead or in critical condition and in immediate need of care.

"You have to take care of the patients you think you can save," said EMT and firefighter Kelly Leamer. "It's hard to because if this did happen here, this is such a small town, you'd most likely be working on people you know. That would make it harder to walk away, but you have to.

"That's when thousands of hours of training and hours of experience and street time help," Leamer said.

Boman said whatever challenges officers or firefighters face in disasters, the most important thing is communication and coordination of efforts.

"It's important what challenges there are in situations like this for us," he said. "And it takes a citywide coordinated effort and effective communication in order to be successful."

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