Emergency crews converge for aircraft drill

Martha’s Vineyard first responders test skills.


Emergency crews from five Island towns participated in a drill on Sunday meant to simulate the bombing of an aircraft coming in for a landing at Martha’s Vineyard Airport. While deemed a success overall, Vineyard fire chiefs found emergency radio communications on-Island remain problematic, and training more frequently than every three years would be beneficial. The drill also served at a testing opportunity for a special  “push to talk” phone app to link first responders to the hospital via the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) dedicated bandwidth.

Also called a MCI (mass casualty incident) exercise, the drill, which temporarily shut the airport, took place on a runway, a site along Barnes Road at the edge of the airport, and at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, where mock victims were rushed by each of the Vineyard’s four different ambulance services after receiving triage in the field. All the Island’s fire crews participated except for Chilmark, which held itself on standby for coverage, according to Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton.

Response speed was paramount, according to assistant airport manager Geoff Freeman, who pointed out FAA regulations stipulate airport fire crews must be able to reach the midway point on a runway in three minutes, the estimated time it takes jet fuel to burn through a fuselage. To that end, the airport’s air rescue firefighting trucks are behind garage doors that must open in 16 seconds, Freeman said.    

Once an alarm sounded, those doors swiftly rose. The airport’s two trucks sped from their bays in the airport’s new rescue building and zoomed across taxiways to where a pair of minibuses shrouded in smoke represented the downed plane.

The drill scenario, as Freeman described it, was that while an aircraft was making its final approach, a passenger disappeared into the lavatory, and subsequently the cabin filled with smoke. Moments later something detonated inside the plane, blowing off an engine and sending the plane crashing onto the runway, where it broke apart.  

Staffed by airport firefighters, the two trucks doused the scene with foam cannons in order to suppress the fire enough to permit the egress of passengers still inside the plane. A second dousing was meant to simulate creation of a “foam blanket” on spilled jet fuel to prevent further ignition. Because foam is costly, water was substituted for foam in the drill, Freeman said. However, water is also used at crash sites. For that reason, West Tisbury fire tankers proved vital to the drill. These hold about 2,000 gallons each, according to West Tisbury Lt. Brynn Schaffner.

“We can expel our water very quickly,” Freeman said.

Air Rescue Firefighting Truck 941, the airport’s primary firefighting vehicle, holds 230 gallons of foam, 450 of dry chemical suppressant, and 1,500 gallons of water. Water shoots from the truck’s water cannon at 750 gallons a minute. There are no standpipes, hydrants, or cisterns on the airfield to replenish the water, Freeman said. “We really do require that mutual aid resupply,” he said.

As the drill progressed, West Tisbury Fire Chief Manuel Estrella III was the first mutual aid chief to arrive. As such, Freeman said, he took operational control.

“At the airport, first chief on scene usually adopts the title of incident commander,” Freeman said.

The airport’s 10 firefighters don’t have a chief among them, according to Freeman, but airport firefighter Jesse Olson, as training coordinator, has de facto leadership status.

Chief Estrella told The Times he joined Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer, who was the EMS commander on scene, state police, and airport officials, in the All Island Police Chiefs Association command vehicle — a type of communications truck — where he quarterbacked the response.

Meanwhile, elements of the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury Fire and EMS departments, en route to the airport via Barnes Road, were redirected to an ancillary disaster site where the engine from the plane was supposed to have crushed an occupied vehicle. Oak Bluffs responded with one rescue crew, two pumper companies, and two ambulances, according to Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose. Two “victims” were taken to the hospital while another was a fatality, he said. The unexpected situation kept his department on its toes, he added.

“In ever-evolving situations you have to be adaptable,” he said.

A Tisbury rescue crew also responded to that scene, Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling said. However he, and much of his department, remained out of the drill for 911 coverage, he said.

Aquinnah Fire Chief Simon Bollin was onsite at the ancillary location as a safety officer, tasked with making sure everyone employed the correct gear, Freeman said.

At the main crash site, Edgartown firefighters worked to free victims from the staged fuselage while West Tisbury brush breakers joined airport fire crews in hosing a grassy expanse beside the runway. This was meant to further protect those still in the plane, Freeman said. Water was sprayed on the grass as opposed to the tarmac to hedge against the danger of ice, he said.

A swarm of EMTs and paramedics tended to 30 patients, placing them on backboards or in neck braces where needed, before evaluating them in a triage area. The most urgently wounded received priority one red cards, and were immediately loaded into ambulances, according to Tri-Town Chief Ben Retmier.  The next tier, priority two, got yellow cards meant to delay transfer until the most grievously injured were addressed, Freeman said. The dead received black cards.

The patients were taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital where hospital staff, per the drill, treated the mock patients.

The U.S. Coast Guard participated by putting air assets and a cutter on standby, according to Chief Schaeffer, but Boston Med-Flight was a no-go for the day due to the weather. The Steamship Authority, while not on call for the drill, would’ve pulled a vessel offline to help if the need arose, Freeman said — perhaps a tall order, given their three largest vessels were out of service at the time of the drill. As a secondary option, Schaeffer said, he was in contact with the National Guard. He described them as a late resource option, as they take two hours to “get spooled up.”

The hospital did not need to divert any incoming patients, Schaeffer said.

He also pointed out the drill was the first time ambulances and other emergency vehicles used the new entrance to the airfield located adjacent to the rescue building.  

Patient injuries ranged from open femur fractures to pediatric lung injury, according to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital chief nurse executive Carol Bardwell.

“We would have had to transfer the vast majority of the patients, but we would have been able to stabilize them prior to transfer,” she said.

The hospital has yet to have a debrief about the drill, but all in all “it went well,” Bardwell said.

Drill takeaways
Radio communication proved problematic during the drill, according to several participants.

“Communications is always an issue here that we try to overcome,” Freeman said. He pointed out the Island remains analog in a digital world. When trying to work out frequencies during the drill, certain channels got overburdened “extremely quickly,” he said, and summed it up as “five fire departments, four EMS departments all jockeying for radio space.”

Freeman made it clear he wasn’t talking about the sheriff’s communication center but rather about departmental radios.

Chief Estrella, who otherwise thought the drill went well, said there was confusion about frequencies linked to channel 680. “Things have got to get worked out,” he said.

EMS-to-hospital communications broke new ground with the demo of an AT&T “push to talk” phone app, which worked through FirstNet dedicated bandwidth to keep first responders in contact with the hospital, Schaeffer said. The bandwidth has no other traffic on it, and by channeling communication from the airport to the hospital off mobile phones, allowed hospital staff greater mobility, he said. Up until Sunday’s drill, hospital staff only communicated from a fixed radio, making for a scenario much like when doctors hovered by the radio in the television show “Emergency!” Schaeffer said.

“I could walk around with this iPhone and use the app to have contact with the scene at the airport and the ER,” emergency room nurse manager Mike Spiro wrote in an email to The Times. “This also allowed me to stand in the ambulance bay and relay information to the triage nurse to give her a heads-up as to what patients were coming in and how soon they’d be here.”

Despite the benefits the app and FirstNet bandwidth conferred, Schaeffer said it’s unrealistic to envision Island fire and EMS departments switching to phone-based communication, because among other things, it’s reliant on towers. He described the new communication modality as another tool in the toolbox. “Land mobile radio is always going to be the standard for us,” he said.

Chief Estrella also saw a need to increase the frequency of drills, which now occur once every three years.

“The more you do it and the more you use the equipment, the better you are at it,” he said. “We’ve got to just drill more often up there — that’s all.”

Schaeffer pointed out such undertakings ask a lot of volunteer departments made up of folks fighting to make ends meet on an expensive Island.

Freeman added the drills are difficult to plan, but thought it was realistic to schedule them every two years as opposed to every three. And smaller drills “that just focus on different aspects of the larger drills” are possible, going forward.

“One of the helpful elements of our ongoing emergency response training is the opportunity to develop working relationships with all the responders,” airport manager Ann Richart wrote in an email. “All the training and professionalism that each agency brings to the response are critical.  But when we have a group of people who also have experience working together in the airport environment, it makes the communication and workflow work even better during an actual incident.”

“It was a great chance to work with the other Island departments and train for an event that no one hopes even happens,” Chief Retmier said.