Airport training exercise brings real heat
Intermittent flames, black smoke and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles were visible even in the distance at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport on Wednesday morning.
Emergency personnel from throughout the region responded to what was actually a simulated plane crash. The incident created for this training exercise was a Boeing 737 falling from the sky into the ground at the airport. The imaginary ill-fated flight was carrying 60 passengers.
More often than not, these training exercises are tabletop sessions. But this time, a large number of volunteers brought a dose of reality to the training. Many were assigned identities as plane crash victims or anxious people close to those passengers.
Two-dozen agencies participated. Combined with the volunteers there were 180 people involved, said Chris Foust, the exercise coordinator who is also the airport’s operations coordinator.
“How the agencies worked together was impressive,” Foust said. “It didn’t seem like this happened only so often. They were very fluid in their interactions.”
One of the volunteers, a girl who participated alongside her mother as a plane crash victim, said afterward it was a somewhat scary experience.
“The plane on fire was cool,” said Charlotte Adams-Cavender, 10. “But then it got scary.”
Her mother, Kayla Adams-Cavender sat across from her. Also with them was Heather Dollarhides. They sat at a table still wearing their realistic make-up that made them look as if they had been through an accident.
Charlotte held up her written description of what physical traumas she had represented. It included a head injury, first- and second-degree burns. She also showed a picture of the plane fire she had taken using a mobile phone.
Kayla pretended to have a puncture wound and various burns.
“I plan on doing this again,” she said. “It was fun.”
Kayla said she and Dollarhides, who was assigned fractured femurs and tibia-fibula injury, were encouraged by their employer, Work Sharp, to participate in the exercise. Charlotte might be able to use her experience for extra credit at school.
Several people tasked to be worried about someone they knew on the flight stood outside the airport building where they were told to inquire about the crash. Several of them are with the Jackson County Long Term Recovery Group, which assists those affected by the 2020 area fires.
These participants said they want to apply what they experience as portraying people in need of answers and support during a crisis and use it to help the wildfire survivors.
“This area is very aware of potential future disasters,” Caryn Wheeler Clay explained.
They and others in this group of actors worked from scripts providing them with identities and concerns that required the attention of air personnel.
They came into the lobby of the building and asked airline employees there about what happened to the passengers they knew.
One of the volunteers who portrayed a concerned family member didn’t have her driver’s license. The airline representative wasn’t very forthcoming with details about the crash victim she was pretending to be concerned about.
“What I learned today is to take my ID with me in an emergency,” said Susan Clymens.
Foust instructed these volunteers to be persistent and to “push the buttons” of the airline employees.
And they were. But these workers were pretty unflappable when asked why information was being reported on TV but not available there from them because they wanted to be sure they providing accurate information.
The airline employees – who came together to work for one imaginary airline in this exercise – will use the information to improve future response to emergencies as well, Foust said.
Another one of the injury volunteers was Mike Moore. He was also still wearing his injury make-up.
Moore saw an announcement online asking for volunteers to help with this training exercise. He thought it would be interesting – especially with his past work experience as an EMT more than 30 years ago in Northern California.
He remembered participating in a plane crash exercise held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park as a responder.
“A lot has changed,” Moore said as he compared the experiences. “And this was a whole lot more real.“
Reach reporter Terri Harber at email@example.com or 541-776-4468.