Emergency responders get crash course at Aspen airport
September 9, 2012
ASPEN – A busful of passengers came as close to experiencing an airline crash as anyone ever could want to on Saturday at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
The Triennial Full Scale Airport Emergency Exercise – a mock airplane crash required every three years by the Federal Aviation Administration – took place on the ramp outside the terminal, where a bus took the place of a crashed airliner, fake blood was substituted for the real deal and the contents of luggage strewn about the concrete came from the Aspen Thrift Shop.
Some 50 volunteers signed up to play stunned, hurt or dead, giving local rescue personnel practice in responding to an actual crash. Firefighters, ambulance personnel, airport and airline employees, as well as law enforcement officers, rushed to the scene. Incident commanders called the shots, and the severely injured were identified and carted out of the bus on backboards and stretchers for transport to a hospital. Observers took notes.
Inside the terminal, other pretenders were raising a ruckus, playing distraught family members and friends of victims, testing the responses of airport and Red Cross personnel.
Through it all, the airport remained open for business, which wouldn’t be the case in the event of a real crash.
“If we waited for the actual disaster to do something like this. … It’s just much easier if we practice,” said Russell Shaffran, an Aspen Ambulance paramedic and the first responder to board the “aircraft.” It was his job to quickly assess passenger injuries.
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“You really have to spend less than a minute on each person to save as many lives as possible,” he said. It was Shaffran who decided which victims, among those who couldn’t get off the bus on their own, needed immediate medical attention.
In ambulances, paramedics ran down how they would treat an actual patient; at Aspen Valley Hospital, doctors reassessed injuries, and the staff followed treatment protocols, though no one was actually treated.
“It’s a good refresher for us just as individuals, and, interagency-wise, it’s invaluable,” said Aspen Ambulance paramedic Deborah Hutchinson. The drill is a good chance for emergency responders from different agencies in the valley to work together without the pressure of a real emergency, she said.
Hutchinson rode in the back of an ambulance with a combative “patient” (this reporter, suffering a mock chest injury) and Carla Wheeler, an EMT with Mountain Rescue Aspen. Mountain Rescue, a backup agency in such events, had four members present and working on the front lines at the drill for the first time, Wheeler said.
Despite the serious nature of the exercise, the day was not without its lighter moments. For some volunteer victims, including members of Boy Scout Troop 243, of Basalt, the chance to get gory was irresistible. Scouts who weren’t sporting serious injuries were disappointed, and the troop member who had a faux shard of glass protruding from his cheek was the envy of his companions.
“They were all like, we want bits of metal hanging out of our heads,” said Scout parent Sarah Lovatt.
On the bus, the wait for help felt excruciatingly long, but even the “dead” chuckled when one delirious patient asked a paramedic if the plane was in Las Vegas yet.
The delay in helping the injured reflects the time it takes to make the airplane safe to board, given the mock fuel spill and potential for fire, explained Jim Elwood, airport aviation director. Firefighters practiced cutting into the fuselage on an old trailer rather than ripping apart the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus.
“It’s just brutal to watch,” Elwood said. “Those first 15 minutes take forever.”
After the morning crash, various agency representatives gathered in the afternoon for a different sort of simulation – planning for what transpires 24 hours after a crash. That practice session is not required by the FAA, but it was added to the drill for the first time three years ago.
“The morning is about saving lives,” Elwood said. “The reality is, that’s not all of the resources or all of the challenges that go with an event.”
Dealing with the arrival of victims’ families and dozens of representatives of the media, accommodating the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, arranging therapy and counseling for airport staffers after a traumatic event and getting the airport reopened are among just a few of the challenges that would follow a crash, he said.