Operation tests airport's readiness

By Maria Jose Subiria


City of Atlanta firefighters and emergency medical technicians swarmed the scene of a simulated airplane crash, with "injured passengers" lying helplessly on the ground at Heartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Thursday.

The intense response was part of an emergency-preparedness drill called "Big Bird," designed to evaluate the readiness and timeliness of the City of Atlanta's firefighters, EMTs, police and other airport responders, by simulating realistic emergency situations.

The exercise is required every three years by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"I think we're at the top of our game, but we can't continue to be the best, unless we continue improving" said Ben DeCosta, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson.

The scenario for this year's drill, in addition to the downed plane with injuries, included a "lost fugitive," and "medical products that contained radioactive, hazardous materials." Such complications were designed to turn up the heat on the exercise and test the emergency responders -- and everybody involved -- more thoroughly.

While firefighters and EMTs assumed the main roles in the plane-crash scenario, the police contingent was mainly responsible for protecting the scene, according to Darrin Barth, a senior airside operations supervisor for the city's Department of Aviation. The lost fugitive and hazardous-materials drill, however, gave Atlanta police officers a larger role in the exercise.

"We want to maximize the involvement of the agencies involved ... [That way,] we are able to test more of the responders," said Barth.

The emergency responders -- and the volunteers who participated -- were included in a variety of different situations , including portraying, and handling, the walking wounded, fatalities, and families who arrived at the airport in search of loved ones.

"The volunteers don't know anything about the circumstances of the emergency scenarios," said volunteer, Jeff Pearse, director of marketing for the city's Department of Aviation. "We have to have the element of surprise," said Pearse, whose face was covered in gruesome, life-like make-up to simulate an injury.

Volunteers were from the Department of Aviation, Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways, said Barth.

According to Barth, in the emergency aircraft scenario, Big Blue Airlines gave short notice to the air traffic control tower that it had hydraulic problems. The airplane landed and skidded off the runway causing it to crash.

"I've participated twice in "Big Bird," said Lt. William A. Pearson, with the City of Atlanta's Fire Rescue operation. "The experience was wonderful. I learned about unifying different organizations, and different departments ... to mitigate situations."

During the preparedness drill, responders were evaluated by the Department of Aviation's business units, the City of Atlanta Fire Department, the City of Atlanta Police Department, among others.

Barth said shortly after the drill, a "Hot Wash," or an informal debriefing, was conducted. The questioning gathered initial reactions from evaluators' on the overall performance and strengths, weaknesses and areas that need improvement.

"We adjust plans, and exercises according to results," said Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. "The exercises are our greatest opportunities to test our capabilities."