Yesterday there was an emergency response drill at the airport. Community members were asked to volunteer to be part of the process in order to enable city emergency responders to practice their organization and skills in the event of a tragic occurrence. The FAA requires every airport to perform these drills every three years.
The day was sectioned into two parts and a volunteer could sign up for all or part of the day. The morning was designed as the Response Phase, where volunteers would act as victims of a plane crash, and the afternoon was set up for Family Reunification, where volunteers would be searching for their injured loved ones from the crash at the local hospitals. I signed up for the whole day. When I heard about this volunteer opportunity I was motivated to get involved due to having been active with the clean-up efforts of the local avalanche that struck a neighborhood in our town three months ago, burying four and claiming the life of one. After that experience I figured the more I can do to help train emergency responders the better.
The Response Phase required us to sign in around 7:30am. We were given cards upon our arrival that listed our injuries and symptoms and then proceeded to go through moulage, the application of scars and make-up to simulate our assigned injuries. There were around 70 volunteers so this process took some time. My card stated that I had upper back pain, a lacerated left shoulder, and trouble breathing deeply. It also had my vitals listed on it. Here is a pic of my fake wound:
There was a great sense of community camaraderie as we admired one another’s wounds. Instead of introducing ourselves in the normal fashion of exchanging names we snapped photos of one another’s moulage fake injuries. There were burn victims with skin hanging off, head gashes, body bruises, cuts, and white faces to indicate some had gone into shock. Instead of getting to know each other by way of asking, “So what do you do?” we said things like, “WOW, that wound looks really good,” and, “So, what’s your injury?” Honestly I enjoyed this form of meet and greet a lot more – it was somehow more authentic and meaningful.
After our moulage was applied and we were briefed on the morning’s exercise we were bussed a short distance to the mock crash site. On loan from our state capital was a helicopter test rig for just such training purposes. The helicopter belted out fire to simulate our crashed airplane so that the airport response team could practice putting it out, followed by incoming city fire trucks to provide backup.
After the helicopter was extinguished we (the victims) were set free to scatter in a field next to the crash site. Our cards instructed us as to what to do and how to behave once the first responders starting approaching us to offer aid. Some of the cards asked people to scream, lapse in and out of consciousness, cry out for their lost child, acted confused, belligerent, or otherwise unruly, or simply be passed out. My card had me walking slowly. Since I was also to have trouble breathing I coughed and held my chest. I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to maintain my role but once the exercise began I found it very easy to stay in character.
It was an interesting process. Once we were set to start our role playing as the EMT’s arrived on the scene and people started screaming and writhing on the ground in their varying dictated pain levels my very first reaction was to want to help them. I mean, I was a walking wounded and according to my card I figured I would be the lowest priority to help. I wasn’t a serious case. As soon as the first responders arrived they announced, on a loudspeaker attached to a firetruck, “If you can walk, please go towards the firetruck with the black top.” So I began walking, slowly, in the direction they told us to go. But as I passed by my fellow travelers calling out for help I wanted to help them. But that wasn’t part of the drill so I kept going, cradling my left arm up since I was wounded, grasping at my chest since I was having a hard time breathing, wincing in agony from my upper back pain, and coughing along the way.
I was examined by a young firefighter who was new to triage. After a few questions I was labeled as green, which meant minor. After green came yellow for delayed, then red for immediate, and black for morgue. As I sat on a grey foam pad on top of the green tarp people buzzed around helping those in need. Firefighters and paramedics, ambulances, volunteer staff, and local t.v camera crews orchestrated around those of us suffering from our fake injuries. A quiet 10-year old girl sat next to me wrapped in a blanket and occasionally I checked in with her to make sure she was doing OK, since her real life parent, who was also a volunteer, had been classified as a higher priority and she was alone with those of us on the green tarp.
The day went smoothly and was an interesting exercise. We were given lunch (although I brought mine since I’m currently on a juice fast) and were allowed to clean off our moulage and change clothes. For those of us staying through the afternoon we were given different cards to simulate the next phase: Family Reunification. We were briefed and then split up between our two different local hospitals and bussed to our respective locations. Once at the hospital we were offering training to the staff to find our loved ones that had been in the plane crash. There were some problems with the exercise design logistics that wound up putting a hiccup in our afternoon phase but all in all it was a successful training.
As volunteers we were thanked many times for our service and time by the firefighters, emergency responders, and hospital staff. We were told how helpful it was to have real people simulating the training and how much they were able to learn. It was a good day. Sure the fake wounds were a lot of fun and sure we were offering a community service by helping train our town’s emergency responders but what I most appreciated was being with other concerned citizens and working towards a shared agenda. I didn’t know anyone there and yet we were all connected by this mock incident. The energy and power of connecting with others in a communal capacity by simply doing something together never ceases to inspire me.