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Simulated plane crash tests area first responders

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
March 20, 2013 at 11 p.m.

The blood, lacerations broken bones and bits of metal embedded in their bodies weren't real, but emergency crews responded as if they were.

About 150 local and state and first responders leapt into action as part of a federally mandated disaster drill Wednesday at East Texas Regional Airport. It's a once-every-three years necessity to be sure that, if the disaster were real, the response would be adequate.

"What you are doing is exercising your airport emergency plan, your fire response times and your mutual aid," said airport Director Roy Miller.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires all certified commercial service airports to conduct full-scale emergency exercises every three years to maintain certification and ensure emergency crews are able to respond rapidly and effectively. Wednesday's outcome, Miller said, was good.

"Everybody responded great. It was safe, it was timely and we met our standards," he said. "I'd give it an A-plus. I think everyone learned from the experience."

Airport officials, fire, hospital and emergency crews responded, extinguished flames from the plane, rescued and transported two victims trapped inside.

"Out of all these I've done, I've never had an airline let us put someone in any of their aircraft," Miller said. "This lets them see how difficult it may really be to get someone out of an aircraft."

Participating agencies included the Longview Fire Department, Gregg County Sheriff's Office, American Eagle, and Gregg County, Elderville/Lakeport and Crims Chapel volunteer fire departments.

"These types of drills are greatly valued by the Longview Fire Department. It allows us to work with the other entities in order to provide mutual aid," said Longview Fire Marshal Johnny Zackary.

"It's nice to build a relationship prior to an actual incident."

Officials at Good Shepherd Medical Center used the drill to gauge the hospital's readiness for a large influx of patients.

Chris Bland, Good Shepherd safety manager, said the drill helped test the hospital's own disaster plan and measure its emergency room response times.

"Every time we have an event like this, we have a responsibility, a duty, to make sure we can accept patients from every type of emergency," he said. "We always want to be able to assist our first responders in any way we can."

While just a drill, such exercises are important because they help the hospital evaluate resources and procedures.

"The way you define a disaster is when the need exceeds the resources," Bland said. "When we institute our disaster plan, we can bring in additional staff to respond to the emergency."

The drill also was helpful to the volunteer victims, mostly students from LeTourneau University and Kilgore College.

For Ariel Wotipka, a senior at LeTourneau, the drill was particularly important.

"I'm majoring in air traffic control, so it helps me understand how they will deal with an emergency if there is one in the future," she said. "Participating in a drill like this helps me understand what to do, when to do it and how to do it. It's all about knowing the safety procedures."



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