PITTSTON TWP. — Arriving on-scene 40 seconds apart, two quick-response firefighting units began blasting streams of water over flames rising from what appeared to be fuel spills on a section of tarmac at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport on Saturday morning.
About 20 people were lying nearby in a grassy field at the end of a runway, and 10 more were inside the shell of what looked like a small passenger jet.
But what appeared to be a plane crash disaster was actually a Live Major Aircraft Accident Response Exercise — a drill that the Federal Aviation Administration requires at every commercial airport every three years, according to Eric McKitish, director of marketing and communications at the airport.
“In addition to being used to continually educate our own ARFF (Airport Rescue and Fire Fighter) personnel, this course gives us an opportunity to allow our mutual aid fire personnel to work with our ARFF staff on an actual aircraft simulator,” said George Bieber, airport director of Public Safety.
The airport rented a 50-foot-long Mobile Aircraft Fire Training Simulator from Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, that produces synthetic smoke and propane-fueled flames both from the simulator and from metal tubes placed on the ground nearby to simulate fuel spills.
Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael J. Barrasse provided the “crash victims” from his drug and alcohol treatment court.
“It’s pretty cool. They told me to moan a little bit. I have organs protruding out of me,” said 27-year-old Tara Ancherani, of Scranton, who participated as part of her required community service.
Make-up and fake organs were applied to Ancherani and the other volunteer victims to simulate injuries before the exercise began. Laminated papers hung from their necks listing their characters’ ages, conditions and apparent injuries to help train personnel performing triage.
Scores of firefighters and ambulance crews from area companies that participated were dispatched from their stations by Luzerne and Lackawanna counties’ communication centers.
Firefighters carried the volunteer victims on backboards from the crash scene to a triage area. About 20 of them were transported to a hospital.
Assistant Airport Director Michael Conner even held a mock press conference for members of the media who attended the exercise.
Avoca Fire Capt. Mike Lampman, who has participated in seven or eight such exercises in his career, said the coordination of “accounting for victims, triaging them and getting them out of the hot zone to the EMS area” went well. “The flow of information went well between the command officers and the field units.”
Lampman said the exercise was a good experience for volunteer firefighters who never participated in an airport disaster drill before.
“You talk about mass casualty … and how it’s different from a single-car accident. … Moving 15 or 20 victims who can’t move themselves, three or four guys needed each to package them and carry them probably 700, 800 yards, and do that multiple times, you get to see not just what the resource needs are, but how physically intensive it can be,” he said.
Airport Director Barry Centini was “very pleased with the response, the way that the medical people here and the EMS handled our patients and some of the fatalities.”
Centini said a couple more ambulances would have been needed if the crash were real. “But, again, it’s a drill. It’s on a Saturday. I think if the real thing ever happened, God forbid it does, we would have a bigger response from the community. But all in all, pretty good.”