Report: Bellingham prepared in event of plane crash

Emergency responders and volunteers are well-equipped to handle a plane crash at Bellingham International Airport, according to an evaluation of the airport’s most recent drill.

In mid-September, more than 200 people staged a full-fledged crash drill at Bellingham airport as required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Between 60 and 70 volunteer victims were made up with moulage to simulate real injuries, and more than 100 people from the Port of Bellingham, PeaceHealth, local fire stations and police agencies, airlines, Mount Baker Chapter of the American Red Cross and Whatcom Unified Emergency Management took part in the drill.

Responders practiced everything from treating victims and taking them to the hospital, to putting out a fuel fire at the scene of the crash.

The FAA mandates the full-scale practice every three years so emergency response groups can evaluate how well they communicate and update their emergency plans as needed.

There were a few minor errors made during this year’s drill, but several issues found during the 2011 drill had been fixed, according to the after action report and Port of Bellingham Emergency Management and Security Officer Neil Clement.

One misstep this year took place while different agencies were being notified by the airport about the crash: Neither the Red Cross nor St. Joseph hospital, two organizations that helped plan and run the drill, were called about the accident.

But, the report explains, in the event of a real crash, dispatchers, not airport staff, would notify the hospital and Whatcom Unified Emergency Management. Emergency management would in turn reach out to the Red Cross, as they have during real incidents in the past, such as in May 2013, when the airport was told an incoming plane might be disabled and the plan was put into action, Clement said. That plane landed safely and there were no problems; in that real-life situation, all the necessary agencies were notified, he said.

During this year’s drill, communications had significantly improved since 2011, when a radio frequency that firefighters use could not be picked up in the command center at the airport’s fire station. At that time, agencies were still able to get in touch using cell phones, and after the exercise the airport’s station was upgraded so radio reception would no longer be an issue.

Another misstep in this year’s drill: responders did not ask for a passenger manifest.

“When we’re planning, we ask ‘How many victims are we going to have?’” Clement said. “We’ve got that number in our heads, so nobody asked for the manifests. In real life, they would.”

The report recommends that the airlines, Red Cross, and the hospital work out a better way to reconcile the list of passengers with the victims that are treated.

In general, the emergency response was well-done, the report states. Firefighters were spraying foam on the fuel fire within three minutes of the first report, vehicles and communication posts were staged in the right places, and support officers were able to relay information about patients to their waiting families.

Though the triennial drill tests response to a plane crash, practicing the standardized command system and finding issues before they happen is helpful for all emergency planning, Clement said.

“What we’re doing is airport-centric, but it could be a train mass casualty, or something else,” Clement said. “Everything we learn is extraordinarily valuable ... it makes a big difference to practice.”