Tampa International Airport tests crisis readiness with full-scale mass casualty exercise

(September 15, 2016) As volunteers in red shirts sprawled out on the North Cargo Ramp airfield and TPA Airport Rescue Fire Fighters responded to the scene, Tampa International Airport’s Triennial Full Scale Mass Casualty Exercise was officially underway Thursday morning. 

New this year: a family assistance component. Dozens of volunteers in blue shirts played the role of loved ones desperate for information about victims in the fictitious Atlantic International Flight 3500. TPA and airline representatives worked to secure an area for the pretend family members, disseminate information and calm them down, just as they would in a real disaster situation.

“One guy tried to climb up the wall to look out the window, others pretended to leave or faint, there were tears and crying,” said volunteer Leisa Rasmussen, a member of the Association of Contingency Planners. “I have to say, the airport personnel was great. They really reacted with compassion.”     

Held every three years or less as mandated by the FAA, Tampa International Airport’s Mass Casualty Exercise is intended to test and review its response and the response of partnering agencies in the event of a major aircraft accident. Nearly 200 volunteers from local colleges and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members played the roles of accident victims and family members and several local media outlets covered the event.

The exercise involved various departments at Tampa International Airport, as well as representatives from 17 different agencies, including the FAA, Alaska Airlines, HART, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, Hillsborough County Emergency Management, City of Tampa Fire Rescue and the Florida Department of Health.

TPA Operations staff and Fire Rescue paramedics were the first departments to respond as the exercise began and executives and department leaders gathered in the Incident Command Center to share information and make critical decisions. Communications simulated social media posts with the latest information and held press briefings where CEO Joe Lopano and Fire Chief Danny Olegario answered tough questions from pretend reporters.

Meanwhile, representatives from TPA and participating airlines handled the family assistance area at Airside F and helped transfer the volunteers to a nearby hotel.

Ira Arman, Vice President of South County CERT who acted as a family member, called the exercise a “learning experience for everyone” and commended the airport and airline reps for how they handled the holding room.

“They did very well with the very little information they could share,” Arman said.

The exercise ended Thursday afternoon with a “hot wash” briefing to review what went well and what needed improvement. Overall, the drill was considered a success, as so many of TPA’s emergency procedures were tested and there were many helpful takeaways as well.

“We hope we never have to face a disaster,” Lopano said. “But it’s important that we are well prepared if we do.”

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