The call comes in at 9:37 a.m. Friday. Sturgeon County emergency crews answer their phones to hear an automated voice say that a plane has crashed into a crowd at an airshow at the Villeneuve Airport.
“There are multiple casualties,” the voice said. “Please activate the Villeneuve emergency plan.”
Minutes later, Sturgeon County firefighters come ripping down the runway at Villeneuve Airport in their trucks, lights flashing, ready to face a flaming fuselage and a field full of bloody victims.
The exercise has begun.
Fake crash, real fire
About 50 firefighters, medics, cops, airport personnel and volunteers were at Villeneuve Airport on Friday, June 14 for a full-scale emergency response exercise – something that’s done once every four years at the airport.
Flaming crashes with mass casualties are extremely rare at Edmonton airports, said Edmonton International Airport fire chief Burl Hamm, who supervised the exercise – the last one he could recall was in the 1970s. Because they’re so rare, it’s important to hold exercises like this to test emergency plans and give new firefighters a chance to learn how to deal with them.
This exercise involved the use of a mobile aircraft fire trainer, which is a mock-up of a medium-sized jet plane rigged with propane torches an operator can use to simulate the spread of a fire, Hamm said.
Airplane fires are dangerous as they can involve flammable fuels, exploding tires, and hazardous cargoes, said Sturgeon County fire chief Pat Mahoney, who was observing the exercise.
“Out here with the wind and the environment, it can spread very quickly.”
Mahoney said Sturgeon County crews train on this simulator each year at the Edmonton International and also practised on it Thursday night.
Calahoo and Namao firefighters would be the first responders to any real crash at Villeneuve Airport, Mahoney said. In this case, crews had to shoot their way past a pool of fire created by a grid of propane jets – simulating spilled fuel – before they could address the flames shooting out of the plane’s wheels and engine. They also had to search the plane’s hot, dark, cramped, and smoke-filled interior for the two dead "victims" on board, represented in this case by bundles of burnt hose.
Once the fire was under control, crews heard pained cries from about 10 St. Albert and Sturgeon area volunteers playing the crash victims. Covered in fake wounds and blood (and, rather incongruously, holding scripts), they were scattered about the field next to the plane, screaming lines like “Help! Help!” and “My skin’s falling off!”
Firefighters had to conduct triage on the victims, administer first aid, and help them to the ambulances about 100 metres away, sometimes on the backs of stretchers.
St. Albert youth Kali Daum wailed as a firefighter bandaged a vicious fake gash in her leg and carried her to the ambulance. Her father, Taylor, added some drama to the affair by staggering over to her and asking, “Is she dead? Is she dead!?” before collapsing beside her.
“It seemed like an interesting opportunity for a young person to see what an emergency scene could be like,” said Taylor, when asked why he and Kali had volunteered for their roles.
“Having children (involved) makes it more interesting for the training.”
St. Albert student Jaeden Newsome said he signed up to flex his acting muscles.
“I found it pretty entertaining,” he said of the scenario, during which he had to wander around confused from a bloody heady wound.
“I finally found a place to put my acting to work and help out people.”
Crews had the victims treated and the fire out by about 11 a.m. Hamm said exercise participants would meet for a debrief session later that day.
Danielle Newsome, Jaeden’s mother, said she felt reassured by seeing crews in action in this scenario and was glad that she was able to help them out. Still, she joked that their gory makeup could make for an interesting drive home if they couldn’t wash it all off.
“I don’t want to be walking into a kindergarten class looking like this,” Jaeden joked.