Airport tests emergency preparedness with plane crash simulation

CHEYENNE — Thursday morning, a number of plane crash “victims” were sprawled across the runway at Cheyenne Regional Airport as part of a full-scale emergency exercise.

Playing out a realistic scene of a commercial airline crash, some were unconscious, some had lost numerous limbs, and some were pronounced dead.

One “victim,” who lost an arm and a leg, shouted, “Worst plane ride ever” as he waited on the tarmac for emergency response.

And while the mood was chipper among the volunteer victims, the first responders reacted just as they would in the case of a real plane crash. Every airport with commercial air service is required to complete an emergency response exercise every three years to ensure the safety of passengers.

“This exercise encompasses the county, the city, all of our outside first responders that will come to the airport to assist on this,” Cheyenne Regional Airport Director Tim Barth said. “So it’s really good, not just because it’s an airport function, but because you can really translate this into any type of emergency in the community. As long as we can have our first responders practicing on events like this, it’s good for the entire community.”

Among the responders were folks from Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, American Medical Response, Laramie County Emergency Management, the Laramie County Coroner’s office and Wyoming Air National Guard Fire Emergency Services.

Since the airport hasn’t run an exercise like this in about 15 years, Barth said this was a first for a number of new personnel.

“It’s a really good chance for us to test our capabilities,” Barth said, noting that working with live victims instead of dummies adds more “credibility” to the exercise.

The same was true for Laramie County Coroner Rebecca Reid, who said her team has a number of new personnel. If a fatal plane crash were to occur in Cheyenne, the coroner’s office has a number of responsibilities in the response, perhaps the biggest being identifying the bodies.

In that scenario, Reid said they might have to use dental information or fingerprints to identify those with severe burns.

“The importance of the exercise ... is to get that practice and to know how to respond to an emergency like this or a mass casualty where there’s more than, say, four deceased people,” Reid said.

For Cheyenne Fire Rescue, Operations Chief Byron Mathews said they responded to this event similarly to how they’d respond to a fire, with the biggest difference being the interagency cooperation.

“We have a lot more people involved, so the roles expand, hence why we all practice together, why we have so many players out here today in the exercise – because we want everybody to have that opportunity that we don’t typically do this every day; we typically don’t have a fire that has 50 people on an airplane,” Mathews said.

Coordinating the response of so many different agencies is a task in and of itself, but Jeanine West and her team at Laramie County Emergency Management were on the scene, prepared to help. In the case of such a serious incident, they’d set up a mobile command center to coordinate the immediate response.

“My goal today is that our public safety and airport staff get familiar with what assets we bring to the table and understand the coordination that we bring in,” West said.

During Thursday’s exercise, Emergency Management brought out its Command Post, where the incident commanders and emergency response leads meet to discuss operational plans.

In addition to coordinating the response, Laramie County Emergency Management fills the gaps for first responders and the airport staff. If there was such a severe incident, West said they can provide mental health assistance, reunify families that were separated, and connect with the American Red Cross or Salvation Army if any victims needed their assistance.

West said seeing all the moving pieces in real time is important to being prepared for a real, large-scale incident.

“Doing this every few years is beneficial to all of our public safety and the airport staff; it helps us work together, and we learn how to coordinate together in the event that this happens for real. Hopefully, it doesn’t ever happen for real,” West said.

Exercise evaluators watched the response unfold Thursday, and they’ll review the exercise and provide feedback to the airport within the next couple of weeks.