NORFOLK — Residents shouldn’t be alarmed if they see smoke, and maybe even flames coming from a runway at the Norfolk International Airport on Sept. 28.
Steve Sterling, the airport’s deputy executive director, said on that specific Saturday, the airport’s Fire Training Center is using a mock airplane with burners to simulate a plane crash for their scheduled mass casualty exercise.
A federal mandate requires the airport conduct a full-scale practice emergency every three years, but Sterling said Norfolk International takes it one step further with their “emergency planning community” holding table-top exercises annually.
Sterling said the table-top exercises give the agencies the opportunity to come together ensuring they’re on the same page when it comes to their policies and assumptions about how other departments would respond during an incident.
“We’ll test our ability to manage the incident especially in a multi-jurisdictional response,” he said.
With the last full-scale exercise in 2016, and after working through some kinks in 2017 and 2018, more than a 150 representatives from community police, fire, emergency management departments, hospitals, and more will participate.
They’ll come together to perform their roles as they would in the instance of a real plane crash ranging from the immediate emergency response to FBI representatives practicing how they would investigate possible causes of the crash.
Sterling said skills tested also include communication between the responding agencies as well as communication between responders and victims — that’s where volunteers from the community come into play.
For this exercise, they’re looking for about 60 volunteers who can wear makeup to imitate wounds and take on the role of an injured passenger in the simulated plane crash.
Using volunteers from the community rather than airport staff or mannequins like they did in their 2013 exercise, lends an opportunity for unbiased victims who like in real-world situations wouldn’t know the response plan or be able to predict what’s supposed to happen next.
“Working with volunteers is a great test for our communication because it requires us to be more specific, and you’ll be talking to people who don’t speak the language or know the terminology we’re used to using,” Sterling said.
Over the years, lessons learned after those exercises have included how to exchange victim or patient information with other agencies without violating HIPAA laws and, even though several departments assumed, airlines do not provide a list of passengers on-board after a plane crash — “The airline actually locks that manifest down,” Sterling said.
“The beauty of this is we can identify a problem and call out to an evaluator ‘we can’t resolve this issue,'” he said. “And then during the after-action review, we can take some of those sticking points on as an assignment.”
Residents can register to participate in Norfolk International Airport’s Mass Casualty Excercise by clicking here.