A 737 collides with a small jet as it comes in for a landing at Reagan National Airport. The jet bursts into flames. Injured passengers are thrown from the wreckage, strewn across the tarmac and screaming for help. Fire crews rush to the scene, hitting the blaze with high-pressure hoses. Ambulances arrive with sirens blaring and paramedics scramble to tend the victims.
Don’t panic. This is only a drill.
The fiery jet is a simulator designed to ignite on cue, a loan from the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. The victims are Red Cross volunteers who willingly gave up their Saturday morning to lie on the tarmac covered in fake blood. But the sense of urgency the fire fighters and paramedics have when it comes to treating them, triaging the roster of injuries and transporting the victims to nearby hospitals is very real.
The drill is federally mandated to test National on its ability to respond to a crisis. The evaluation of the performance — conducted by local fire chiefs, paramedics and emergency managers — will demonstrate how the airport may handle real crashes in the future. According to one evaluator, Battalion Chief Elliot Rubino of Fairfax County’s Fire and Rescue Department, the key to handling any major disaster is proper leadership.
“You have to be able to divide up the work into different areas and make sure that each one of those components does their job,” he said before the drill began “If you’re going to manage a large scale event, you can’t exceed your span of control. It’s said that the magic number is seven, in that you have to make sure you don’t have more than seven people reporting to you because after that you get overloaded.”
Rubino described the drill as “ a leadership exercise, a tactics exercise. You have to know how to handle 100 people who have been hurt, keep track of them and be certain they get treated in the order they’re supposed to be treated.”
THE SIMULATED FIRE was extinguished in about one minute and rescuers quickly began triaging victims into three categories by severity of their mock injuries. Paramedics also had to recover fake severed limbs and tend to the injuries of a wounded plastic baby.
Ensuring that fire and rescue groups work in concert is another key aspect of managing a plane crash, Arlington fire fighter and paramedic Phil Laub said, something that first responders in Northern Virginia have learned to do in recent years.
“Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, we always run mutual aid calls helping each other. We’re all on the same radio frequencies,” he said.
Laub, who served as an evaluator, added that thanks to a system known a MedComm, rescuers can find hospital beds and emergency room space faster for victims of such catastrophes. Results of the evaluation will be released in the coming weeks. Laub said it measures performance on the many elements that make up a proper rescue operation.
“We’ll look to see how things get coordinated between the fire suppression side of the operation, the medical response side, transportation of patients to the hospitals,” he said.
The 737 used in the drill was donated by an anonymous airline. As rescue crews struggled to treat the victims, Lt. Peter Fiackos of Montgomery County’s Fire Rescue squad remarked that the exercise has some vital differences to the scene of real airliner crashes.
“They are never pretty and they are always disorganized,” he said.
Fiackos added that the airport was a more “controlled environment” than the crashes he has witnessed.
Representatives of the Red Cross lent their assistance on the scene. The group was responsible for providing the “victims” of the crash, their makeup and the fake body parts on the ground. Coordinator Kate Hansen said the Red Cross, which has supported similar drills at the Pentagon, also provides mental health services to crash victims and supports rescuers with bottles of water and other types of relief.
“This is something we do in all disasters,” she said.
Before the exercise, Hansen said, the victims are each assigned a card detailing their various injuries, taught how to play their roles. Gory makeup provides a final touch of realism.
“Their body parts are hanging off them, pieces protruding through their skin. The make-up artists really go all out,” she said.
Lying on the tarmac, volunteer Margaret Wheat said playing her part was worth the effort if it helps first responders do their jobs better.
“It’s important because it helps them prepare for what they have to in a mass disaster,” she said.
Pointing to her fake cuts and protrusions, Wheat was confident she’d come out of the crash alive.
“I think I’m going to walk away from this. I have some lacerations. I also have a piece of glass sticking out of my back,” she said. "It’s just a fun thing to do on a Saturday morning.”