(April 25, 2014) - On April 17, Tampa International Airport conducted its triennial Emergency Response Exercise. This is an important event for the airport, required by the FAA, to ensure that the airport is prepared in the event of a large scale disaster. The airport conducts this exercise to simulate a mass casualty event that would challenge the resources of local emergency responders, hospitals, law enforcement, and community services like the American Red Cross.
The exercise simulated an aircraft crash from the fictional “Atlantic Airways” en route from London, with the plane glancing cars on Hillsborough Avenue then skidding through the perimeter fence and coming to rest on the old cargo ramp. The scenario required an immediate full scale fire department response to extinguish two blazes and treat victims as well as addressing the impact to airport operations and surrounding roadways. In the scenario, many of the passengers were foreign nationals, injecting a need for federal agencies to intervene and assist with the added variables of identifying the victims and notifying family members located in other countries.
More than 150 students from Hillsborough Community College participated in the exercise, playing passengers and crash victims that Tampa Fire Rescue workers would triage.
“Mock plan crash today at Tampa Airport,” tweeted one HCC student. “Get to be a crash victim. Hope it doesn’t rain and there are cute rescue workers.”
Thuy Hyunh, a nursing student at HCC, sprawled out on a piece of fuselage, with a card around her neck indicating she was to portray an 80-year-old woman found clutching her chest and moaning in pain but with no obvious injury.
“I’m pretty much going to be a goner,” she concluded. “An acute MI is in process. So yeah, that’s pretty much a heart attack. And as old as I am with the vital signs that are presented I’m pretty much going to be dead.”
This was Hyunh’s first time participating in a mass casualty exercise.
“It’s an interesting experience,” she said. “Every day is a learning process.”
While the emergency crews worked to process the simulated crash site and triage the victims, other airport personnel gathered in the Incident Command Center located in the airport terminal. Airport CEO Joe Lopano and Vice President of Operations and Customer Service John Tiliacos led the airport command center, which included representatives from the agencies involved and the impacted departments of the Aviation Authority. The command center serves as a clearinghouse for all of the information to be gathered and processed as critical operational decisions are made.
In a nearby room, airport communications, and the county’s Emergency Management team set up a mock Joint Information Center to begin simulating the process of releasing updated information to the press and posting on the airport’s social media sites about the status of the airport and instructions for individuals who needed to inquire about victims.
The exercise concluded with a mock press conference where journalism students from USF and airport employees directed questions about the crash scenario at Lopano, Tiliacos and the airport’s fire chief.
The airport will conduct a full scale exercise again in 2017. In the years that there is not a full scale drill, participating agencies meet to conduct a tabletop exercise.