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Preparedness Makes Connections at Bangor International Airport

 

April 8, 2008

 

At an airport, planning for emergencies is a never-ending process. Bangor International Airport is no exception.

“Every three years BIA is required to have a mass casualty and incident drill,” said Tom Robertson, Penobscot County Emergency Management director. “Because of the size and type of the airport, the incident will involve more than 150 people,” he said. “That is a big exercise.”

A disaster drill involves simulated victims, fire, police and emergency medical personnel, plus the State Police, the Transportation Security Administration and airport officials. “We will tie all of that into one big package, and one Saturday we will have a six hour drill,” Robertson said.

Robertson, who spent 30 years with the Air National Guard based at the Bangor Airport said that relationships between the military, city and federal government are positive. “We have close contacts with the emergency managers at the Air Guard base,” Robertson said. Recently, those connections proved helpful.

“Several weeks ago we had an incident where an outbound DC-10 military plane broke down in Bangor,” Robertson said. “They found themselves with 150 soldiers and a broken airplane in the middle of a large storm,” he said. “They didn’t know what they were going to do.”

According to Robertson, the response was perfect. “Their emergency management person called me and asked if we could help with cots,” he said. “We rustled up 100 cots and sent them out to the Air Guard.”

“I’ve been out there at the airport fire department for 25 years, and I’ve seen the emergency exercises grow from very small to very large,” Robertson said. “As preparedness evolves nationwide, these things are getting more complex all the time.”

In the past, these exercises involved only a few response agencies. “In the old days, it was largely a mass casualty exercise, where they would take a group of people, put them in a field somewhere, make believe that the plane had crashed and then treat and transport these people with simulated injuries,” said Michael Grant, state training officer for Maine Emergency Management Agency. “Back then it only involved the hospitals and the ambulance services.” The point was to test medical response. “They want to see how long it would take to get 80 to 120 people, who might be on an airplane, to the hospital.”

Modern drills now incorporate the incident command system to achieve multi-agency coordination, and attempt to build more robust communications plans. “Where it used to be police, fire and airport personnel holding the exercise, we now involve the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration,” Robertson said. “The days have gone by where you can have what is termed a ‘simple exercise.’”

Still, old problems exist even with new, complex exercises. “The number one challenge is getting people involved,” said Grant. “Bangor is a challenge because most of the support personnel comes from towns that have only volunteer responders.” Before state and federal Homeland Security money was made available to pay emergency responders for these drills, Grant estimated that the exercise included just 30 percent of the total personnel that would occur in a real emergency. “When the other 70 percent shows up, there could be some chaos because they had not worked together in an exercise scenario,” Grant said.

Now, with the government able to provide funding to communities organizing these drills, it is more feasible to incur the staff time needed for a full response.

This year’s exercise will also involve new operations and technology. “This is going to be the first exercise that the city has had where they stand up an Emergency Operations Center at their new police station,” Robertson said. “Plus, we will be using at least one of the state’s mobile command vehicles -- a very large, $500,000 communications asset placed in Bangor,” he said.

Robertson’s role in an airport emergency is simple. “My role is to reach out to the on-scene commander and ask what I can do for them,” he said. “They would not be calling me unless they’ve outstripped all of their resources or needed resources that they do not have access to, and with that information, I would go off and make things happen for them.”

“The county Emergency Management Agency is the conduit between the city and Maine Emergency Management, on up to FEMA if necessary,” Robertson said. “Our function really is the go-between, to get our cities what they need.”

For Robertson and other emergency planners, organizing these drills has become a long-term activity. “Back in the old days, I remember people saying ‘okay, it’s April, it’s time to start planning May’s big exercise,’” Grant said. “You’d make a few phone calls and make arrangements. It was very easy,” he said. “You cannot do that anymore.”

The current exercise process includes a group planning the drill, another group evaluating the exercise and response, and another to follow-through and build upon the lessons learned.

“We are always working to make the exercises a little bit different,” said Grant. “For the responders, it gets to be pretty mundane. It becomes so predictable, that it loses its effectiveness,” he said. Recent drills have involved an old plane from Stephen King’s 1995 film, "The Langoliers,” a movie filmed at the Bangor Airport. For future drills, planners hope to involve new challenges and different scenarios.

Over time, exercise planning becomes a standard operation. “It’s going to be incorporated more into the town’s daily business,” Grant said. “It will just become a mainstream project that they do automatically.”

—Derek Mitchell

 

Contact:

Penobscot County EMA
207-945-4750

 

 

 

 

Last update: 02/12/08