The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Michigan.
As a twin-prop plane prepared for takeoff at Cherry Capital Airport, a crowd of people smeared in fake blood, makeup and other simulated injuries could be seen in and around an unidentified school bus. away from the track.
Moments before, Randi Terry of the Munson Medical Center Emergency Preparedness Committee had walked in for a last-minute touch-up to their cast, as the fake nicks, cuts, bruises and more are known.
“You want more blood? she asked.
A short time later, the volunteer victim actors writhed in pain or walked around calling for help as an airport firefighting platform rolled towards the school bus. A few playing the walking casualty went to the driver’s door of the truck, asking for help from the firefighter inside.
It could have been a gruesome sight for the unsuspecting – a woman repeatedly called out for her character’s husband, the two being “reunited” on a blanket just outside the track fence. Others continued to call for help from the ground as firefighters assessed who needed it first or who would not survive.
But signs at the airport terminal and on the road leading to the scene of the crash itself let people know it was a training exercise. Air traffic controllers are also notifying incoming pilots, said airport spokeswoman Susan Wilcox Olson.
The general scenario: An airliner crashed on landing after a drone flew in its path, according to Wilcox Olson and airport manager Kevin Klein. Scenario authorities initially suspected criminal intent or terrorism, even arresting the imaginary drone operator, but determined the user had lost control of the drone, Klein said.
Public schools in the Traverse City area loaned the bus that replaced an airplane, Klein said. The school district was one of many participating agencies and institutions, including Grand Traverse City and County Law Enforcement, County Emergency Management, the Federal Aviation Administration and more.
Behind the drama and the occasional laughter was an extremely serious purpose.
City Fire Chief Jim Tuller said it was an important opportunity to bring many agencies together to prepare for the real thing.
City firefighters are already training as an aircraft rescue and firefighting force, as the department provides firefighting services under contract, Klein said. This includes an on-site firefighter.
And department personnel have already put skills to work that they would rely on in a real accident, such as extracting people from a burning mangled vehicle, Tuller said. Likewise, nearby fire departments train with Traverse City to respond to plane crashes.
What’s invaluable about a drill like Wednesday’s is the ability not just to train inside the airport’s secure area – he likened it to a different world – but with part of the real emotion.
“I would love to do one a year, I think they’re very valuable, and it also brings responders into this stressful environment where they need to be able to operate,” Tuller said. “Your body can’t leave unless your mind has already been there.”
More than 30 minutes into the exercise, a real medical incident, or “real world” as one radio first responder called it, occurred. Firefighters and paramedics helped one of about 25 volunteer victims of the crash onto a stretcher, and she held her hand to her forehead as they wheeled her into a mobile medical response ambulance.
She ultimately refused all treatment after asking to give up exercise when she started feeling dizzy, Tuller said afterwards. Volunteers are free to “tap” if they need to, he added.
While plans for the exercise still call for an actual emergency to coincide with the training, the timing was not scripted, Klein said.
For the parts that were, inspectors in white vests moved among the first responders and the actors to make sure everything was going well.
Matt Ansorge was an inspector and is the director of emergency services for Leelanau County. He said he watched in case he needed to stop anything extremely dangerous or against protocol, and took notes to give constructive feedback on the rest.
For one thing, the various agencies — East Bay Ambulance, Grand Traverse Metro Fire, and Peninsula Township Fire were on the long list — did well to come to the scene, establish who needs to do what, and then assess the situation. .
There was some confusion at first when first responders arrived, Ansorge said.
“They were able to overcome that and get people there,” he said.
This mix-up is intentional — not only were the cast calling for help and frantically looking for others, but Klein said the dispatch call gave the wrong passenger count. Early radio traffic put it at 37, but this was later corrected up to 55.
Fritz Breland, one of the victim volunteers, said the other volunteer calling her husband was looking for her character. The storyline had him among the walking injured after being ejected from the plane, while he remained trapped inside and paralyzed from the legs.
Watching first responders struggle to get Breland out showed him how hard a job it would be, he said.
“It opened my eyes to how difficult an event of this magnitude is for everyone,” he said.
Breland, who lives in Boynton Beach, Florida, is good friends with Terry, he said. She asked him to volunteer in a type of training he had never done before.
Patricia Allen had never even heard of wearing makeup to train first responders, she said. The retired attorney divides her time between Crystal Lake and West Palm Beach, Fla., and said she thought it would be fun to attend.
If the stress of the simulated accident, scripted or not, seemed too real, a daily scene of warm hugs between the travelers who had just arrived and the friends and family waiting for them offered a glowing relief between genuine affection and a mock tragedy.
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