Exercises stress need for fire, paramedics, airlines to work seamlessly in emergencies
Throngs of first-responders surrounded a downed plane at San Francisco International Airport on Wednesday, working together to put out a fire and triage dozens of bruised and bloody passengers.
The “plane” in question, however, was an ancient Boeing 727 parked on the taxiway, the “fire” was a series of smoke bombs and the “passengers” were Terra Nova High School students participating in an airport drill designed to streamline a disaster plan that emergency personnel hope they’ll never have to use.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial airports to conduct such full-scale drills every three years, but SFO performs the drill annually.
“Safety and security are the cornerstones of everything we do at San Francisco International Airport,” airport director John Martin said.
More than 20 agencies participated in the effort, including several local fire departments, the California Highway Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard and San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, among others.
Firefighters put out the “fire” billowing from the plane and took to the gory task of removing injured passengers — those who bore green labels were considered walking wounded and loaded on a waiting SamTrans bus.
Passengers who were marked with yellow and red labels were loaded onto waiting ambulances meant for local hospitals and trauma centers.
Mike Mendenhall, drill evaluator and operations manager for the San Mateo County American Medical Response, said he looks for well-coordinated operations where everyone is clear on their responsibilities and works as a team.
Communication remains one of the biggest challenges, because several of the responding agencies communicate on different radio frequencies.
Continental Airlines operations supervisor Lopaka Amantiad said passing on information is one of the most important parts of his job — alerting local hospitals of each incoming passenger’s name and notifying Continental headquarters of where they were taken for treatment.
The annual exercise is especially important in making sure the San Francisco Fire Department — considered a relatively young department because it has had many retirements recently — knows what San Mateo County emergency responders are doing and vice-versa, Capt. David Sullivan said.
Sullivan said that every time the agencies fine-tune their response, their overall efforts become more efficient.
“You can be as prepared as you can, and you’re always learning to improve,” Sullivan said.