Airport crash drill relied on realism to train Island first responders

Victims with graphic injuries lay scattered about the crash site and smoke wafted in the air, as multiple agencies converged Sunday at the crash site in the state forest.

A firefighter hoses down a portion of the mock fuselage. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Martha’s Vineyard Airport, one of the busiest small airports in the state, is also one of the safest. On Sunday, Island emergency first responders trained for a day they hope will never come but understand is always a possibility — a crash involving a commercial flight, in which there are many injuries.

The exercise, conducted every three years, is a requirement of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and is used to assist in emergency response preparedness.

Sunday morning the emergency call went out to airport and Island first responders. The scenario involved a plane crash just outside the airport runway at the main entrance to the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, by the state deer-check station. A mobile command center was set up, and police cordoned off the area.

Two Vineyard Transit Authority buses were parked end to end to represent a broken plane fuselage. Wooden pallets and front-end loader buckets were strewed across the ground to create a debris field. Aquinnah Fire Chief Simon Bollin used smoke canisters to represent burning jet fuel. Approximately 34 volunteer crash victims, in realistic and often grisly makeup, lay in and around the fuselage and across the debris field.

As some firefighters dowsed imaginary flames, others joined EMTs and paramedics in tending to and transporting the injured.

One of the lessons learned echoed a similar finding from a multiple-department fire drill held in downtown Oak Bluffs in January: Communication is critical in an emergency.

“We learned very quickly that we need to improve our communication systems to operate large-scale events of multiple disciplines,” said Martha’s Vineyard Airport Manager Sean Flynn.

Mr. Flynn said he thinks the drill also showed how well separate Island departments can work together seamlessly together as if they were one large department. “We also know that we have areas that will need improvement; however, that is what a large-scale exercise is meant to do,” he told The Times.

Mr. Flynn said the airport dispatched two very specialized fire trucks. “They are designed to respond very quickly and to be operated by a single operator,” Mr. Flynn said. “They carry large amounts of water, foam, and dry chemical. In addition, they are four-wheel-drive and can operate very close to a large fire.”

Geoffrey Freeman, lead supervisor for airport operations, said once the data has been analyzed, the findings will be available.