A disaster drill at Los Angeles International Airport captured some of the horror and confusion of a real-life runway air crash. The drill is intended to promote coordination among rescuers in all types of emergencies.
It has happened before at airports like this and will certainly happen again. An aircraft collision or other disaster, such as a terrorist incident, demands a quick response from emergency workers.
In the drill, two airplanes are approaching on the runway. One is a landing passenger jet and the other a cargo plane about to take off.
The air traffic controller provides instructions to both.
The pilot of the cargo jet misunderstands the instructions. The planes collide, and the controller alerts other pilots to the disaster.
Emergency workers respond immediately, asking for help from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and fire department hazardous materials teams (HazMat), as well as Emergency Medical Services.
Emergency Workers: "Requesting LAPD, HazMat, Fire Department HazMat Task Force. Also [send] EMS [Emergency Medical Services] resources for approximately 200 patients."
Fire Captain Patrick Butler said that this drill is realistic, involving scores of ambulances, police cars and helicopters, and more than 700 people. Nearly 300 are volunteers, who portray injured passengers or people hurt in the terminal.
"They may have injuries, burns, broken bones, and so we are going to begin a triage, treatment, and transport of these patients," he said.
The tarmac is secured, as rescuers reach the scene. Firefighters spray a flame-retardant chemical on the burning wreckage, and into the terminal and the aircraft.
Airport worker Nancy Castles said that injured passengers on the runway are quickly assessed.
"This is part of the fire department's triage, to be able to identify very quickly, within less than a minute, whether or not this person is dead or is in such critical condition that they need to be moved quickly," she said.
Volunteers are made up with plaster and red paint, said Lisa Burke, a specialist in the art of creating mock wounds and injuries. Her company, Burke's Blood Bath, was named with a touch of humor, but she offers a serious service for disaster drills like this one. She said that volunteer "patients" have what appear to be real injuries to prepare disaster workers for what they may encounter in an actual incident.
"A lot of lacerations, a lot of compound fractures, just a little bit of everything out there," she explained. "We are going to have a lot of screamers today."
Nearby were people with light or moderate injuries. Some called out as they waited for treatment. Some volunteers are students and others work at the airport.
Inside the terminal, other volunteers played the roles of family members, who were frantically seeking news about their love ones. An airline worker tried to provide the details.
Battalion Chief Mike Reagan of the Los Angeles Fire Department said communication is crucial in an emergency, not only between the airline and worried family members, but also among emergency workers on the tarmac. He added that his department is the lead agency, so radio communications all take place on the same channels.
"It is a lot easier to operate than it would be where some smaller cities that are sharing resources with other smaller cities, may not have the same radio channels," he said. "That is something the fire service is working on at the state level."
Commercial airports in the United States must conduct emergency drills every three years. Michael DiGirolamo, who oversees security at several Los Angeles airports, said that the exercises show what is wrong with the system and what needs improvement.
"Why you have exercises is to find out things that do not work," he explained. "Over the years through these exercises, we find out little glitches that we would have done something better. So you look for those little glitches, and you want to make sure that everything is working properly."
Emergency workers were on the scene within three minute of this make-believe accident. Of course, they knew in advance it was coming, but airport officials say procedures are in place to ensure a quick response, if such a disaster should really happen. Just as after a real incident, a panel of experts will evaluate how the rescuers responded.