First responders answering the call to a mass casualty EMS drill Saturday came upon a realistic scene of a crashed airplane and a simulation of burning wreckage.
Volunteer actors playing roles of airplane crash victims -- the "walking wounded" -- drifted about the exercise area acting dazed, confused and awaiting arrival of emergency help. Others lay on the ground calling for help and crying out in pretended pain. Those playing mock fatalities lay still.
The mass casualty exercise held at Blake Field was a simulation of a tragedy that could someday occur. "Of course, you hope this kind of thing never happens," said Delta County Ambulance District manager Kirby Clock. "But if ever does, you want to know that you are prepared."
The event organizer was Slim Farnsworth and his business, Rock Star Education and Consulting. Clock said, "Slim did a fantastic job. He put in a whole lot of work on the exercise."
The setting for the exercise held just south of Blake Field's main runway lent a sense of realistic drama with help of airport managers Mark and Cheryl Husmann. Wreckage of a light aircraft from the Blake Field "junk pile" was carried to the scene. Thick, black smoke curled skyward from multiple fires set in oil drip pans simulating the debris of burning airplane wreckage.
As medical responders arrived, they began moving professionally and purposefully among the injured just as their many hours of training had taught them. At the scene, an incident command center was set up as the task of making medical diagnoses of the victims proceeded.
Clock explained that early responders to such an event would have the job of setting up an incident command center. A triage and treatment center is also designated on site. The term "triage" in medical use is defined as "the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties."
Medical personnel went about their jobs of evaluating each victim (which in some cases were played by an orange safety cone) according to the imaginary injuries written on an attached card. On-site treatment protocols and then transportation to the triage and treatment area starting with the most severely injured began.
Responders participating in the drill knew the date and time but not the location or nature of the scenario. The first call went out at 9 a.m. Over the radio in the Delta ambulance barn came the notice: "This is a drill. DCAD respond to Delta Blake Field. Jet has crashed. Fuselage on fire. Multiple injuries."
The exercise scenario was a commuter jet having serious mechanical problems, unable to make it either to Grand Junction or Montrose. The pilot, attempting an emergency landing at Blake Field, came down short of the runway. The imaginary crash resulted in the pilot's death along with injuries and casualties to another 30 to 35 people, according to the simulation script.
Other agencies were invited to participate in the exercise. Clock explained that a mass casualty event is one that overwhelms the local ability for response. The district has a trailer with supplies to treat some 50 people at a mass casualty scene, and the trailer was on site. But the limited number of local hospital beds available can require transport to other hospitals.
In this exercise two medevac helicopters responded, one from Montrose and another from Glenwood Springs. In a real mass casualty event they would be used to transport the severely injured to other hospitals with available capacity to handle multiple patients.
In a real event when all of the district's ambulance units are needed, other area agencies would dispatch units to cover local 911 calls for a time.
Many of the volunteers playing victims in the exercise were family members of the of the responders. Clock's wife, Lynette, and son Tyrell participated as actors, and the Husmanns' son played the part of the aircraft pilot, slumped over in the cockpit of the crashed airplane.
A school bus was used to simulate an airplane fuselage giving responders further experience in the realities of such an emergency.
It took a little over an hour for the crash scene to be cleared as the last of the victims, the mock fatalities, were carried out on back boards.
Delta County emergency manager Jeff Wright said, "This exercise has been really helpful. A great big thank you goes to the Husmanns for helping stage the event. I would like to see more of this kind of exercise in the future."
Blake Field's managers are willing to oblige Wright's request. Mark Husmann said, "This is the first time we have done this here. We hope there will be others in the future."
An all-agency debriefing was held immediately following the exercise.
Clock said afterward, "We [did] a debriefing and looked for ways to improve the process all the way through. Overall we're pleased with how personnel made decisions and set up their incident command at arrival. We really appreciate all the help from participating agencies and the airport managers."