HIBBING — At 9:10 a.m. the pilot notifies Range Regional Airport of a disturbance in the cockpit.
Eleven minutes later, the plane lands then crashes and breaks up on the airport’s south ramp with 40 passengers on board.
What would you do?
It’s the question Range Regional Airport (RRA) staff and area first responders answered Tuesday when they participated in a community disaster exercise at the airport.
The airport is required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do a live disaster exercise involving area responders every three years, said Shaun Germolus, RRA director.
“We need to run through our emergency plan with the agencies that are part of that plan and have to respond to the airport,” he said.
The airport also does a “table top” review by sitting down with responders annually at the request of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Agencies from throughout the Iron Range participated in the mock rescue, just as they would in a real crash scenario.
About 26 of the crash victims in the scenario were living volunteers from the area and Mesabi Range Community and Technical College’s licensed practical nurse program.
The exercise was set up to occur as it would in real time.
The airport’s Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) unit arrived on scene and started putting out a mock fire one minute after the crash with Hibbing Fire Department trucks arriving eight minutes later.
Ambulances from Hibbing, Virginia and Eveleth arrived to attend to the first victims 10 minutes later with a unified command post set up by 10 a.m. — 40 minutes after the mock crash.
The last victims were loaded into ambulances for transport to the hospital at about 11 a.m. — an hour and 20 minutes after the crash.
The time line was similar to what would occur in a real emergency, Germolus said.
Agencies involved in the exercise included fire and emergency departments from Hibbing, Virginia, Eveleth and Keewatin, St. Louis County, Hibbing Police, Hibbing Public Works, Life Link III, chaplains, TSA, Delta Airlines, Fairview University Medical Center-Mesabi (UMCM) and Virginia Regional Medical Center (VRMC).
Members of the Radio Amature Civil Emergency Services (RACES) group participated in the exercise for the first time this year, and all involved commended the organization for helping to provide one of the most vital needs in an emergency — quick, accurate communications.
“Communication is always a very difficult thing for these exercises,” Germolus said. “We only have a few land lines here. Cell phones can get tied up quickly.”
RACES volunteers were set up with key players from emergency responders to the staging area and people from the airport and airline.
They were able to help relay information that helped the airline track the condition and whereabouts of passengers, which is its main concern in an accident, said Todd Salmela of Delta Airlines.
Airport staff were able to provide first response and then turn over rescue efforts to fire, EMS and police.
Hibbing Fire Battalion Chief Erik Jankila ran incident command. He called the exercise a learning experience for him as it introduced him to working with the RACES volunteers and reporting victim information to the Delta representatives in real time.
“Every incident like this is going to be chaos to begin with, and just being able to corral and manage the chaos is what the ultimate goal is,” he said.
Volunteer patients questioned the length of time it took emergency responders to reach them and tend to their needs, he said.
“The reality of it is the first wave of responders that are going to come are going to be setting up to manage the chaos,” Jankila said. “Realistically, statistics show (it’s) the first 35 to 40 minutes before the first patients are transported out of a scene of this nature.”
He added that the exercise went well from an emergency services point of view.
Germolus praised those involved for their efforts and added that the next focus will be to plan for the long-term needs following an emergency.
After providing the initial response, airport staff would focus efforts on getting debris off the field and resume normal operations.
Airport staff and the airline would also be concerned with long-term needs of victims, family and media, Germolus said.
“That’s something our group here is working on as kind of the long term,” he said. “I think we did really well getting the initial response done.”