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Local News

Drill Prepares for Mass Casualties at Santa Barbara Airport

Multi-agency effort helps emergency responders practice in case of a major aircraft disaster

Dozens of emergency agencies came together Wednesday for an elaborately staged drill that was designed to help first responders prepare for a major aircraft disaster at the Santa Barbara Airport.

The exercise also was intended to help mutual aid agencies practice responding anywhere there is a mass-casualty incident, which occurs whenever injured people or fatalities outnumber first responders.

Major disasters — such as the crash of the Asiana jetliner at San Francisco International Airport over the summer that left two dead and 49 injured — were still on the minds of many conducting the drill Wednesday, and Santa Barbara Airport officials said having an emergency management plan in place will be key if a major incident ever occurs at the airport.

Every three years, the airport must have a drill like Wednesday's, according to Federal Aviation Administration rules, said Tracy Lincoln, the airport's operations manager.

City of Santa Barbara police and fire departments and Office of Emergency Services were a part of the drill, along with personnel from the Santa Barbara County fire, sheriff, coroner and Office of Emergency Management, Public Health Department, and American Medical Response, and many other agencies.

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Transportation Security Administration also were involved with the drill 

Dozens of "victims" — actually Santa Barbara City College EMT students role-playing — were helped out of a simulated aircraft fuselage by firefighters. Many sported injuries that looked quite realistic and made the drill come to life. 

Instead of an airplane fuselage, "injured" passengers were led off of a Santa Barbara MTD bus and to a triage medical staging area on the tarmac.

Focusing limited resources on the most injured people is key, said Capt. Gary Pitney of the Santa Barbara Fire Department, who was participating in the exercise.

An MTD bus stands in for a crashed aircraft Wednesday during a mass-casualty drill at the Santa Barbara Airport. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Three tarps were set up for patients, with a red square tarp holding the most acute patients, who had head injuries, limbs missing and severe bleeding.

The patients all had tags on their bodies, stating what their injuries were, the severity of their condition and what hospital they would be transported to.

A special response vehicle that stays at the airport full time was parked nearby and held medical supplies used to triage patients.

Pitney said one of the last mass casualty incidents he remembered occurred several years ago when a van turned over while driving down Shoreline Drive. The vehicle contained 11 passengers, and after the crash, first responders arrived to find people who had been ejected from the vehicle and some that were still inside.

"You're not thinking it's going to be big, because it comes across dispatch as a single-vehicle accident," he said.

Because there's a low probability that these events will occur, training is even more key so that first responders are ready when they do, Pitney said.

Even though the fire departments are more used to responding to brush fires, "the team approach is still the same," he said.

An air crash "victim" is assisted by a firefighter Wednesday during a drill at the Santa Barbara Airport. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk)

Although some things couldn't be replicated, like CalStar landing to transport severe patients or AMR actually taking people to the hospital, they still accounted for the time it would take to transport.

Lincoln said that individual airlines have employees who come in times of crisis to work the scene and help contact families of passengers affected in the incidents.

Until those employees arrive, American Red Cross members are responding and doing grief counseling on the scene, Lincoln said.

On the nearby UCSB campus, the Red Cross also was working on the drill, counseling "family members" connected to each of the passengers involved in the drill.

Each family member had a script that they followed and Red Cross members honed their counseling skills.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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