Grand Forks International Airport conducted a full scale disaster exercise on Wednesday, Sept. 18, putting emergency responders in the area to the test.
The disaster exercise was comprised of two parts, a potential bomb threat on a plane, and a second plane with smoke in the cabin. The narrative of the exercise stated that the two planes were diverted to Grand Forks Airport on their way to Winnipeg, Canada, due to severe weather.
“It is actually a requirement by the FAA to conduct a full scale emergency exercise at least once every three years,” said Ryan Riesinger, the executive director of the airport. “The objective is to test the airport’s emergency plan.”
The bomb threat scenario began the exercise that morning and took place in the terminal, which was evacuated. Volunteers played the role of passengers who overheard another passenger comment about a bomb. There was no plane at the gate in the airport. The volunteers were evacuated from beyond the security checkpoint, simulating the presence of an airplane.
The second operation began at 8:30 a.m. on a windy day that saw dozens of volunteers bussed out to the airport’s training ground just off of County Road 5, to a decommissioned Federal Express airplane.
There were about 100 participants involved in the exercise, from the Airport Authority to the Airport Rescue and Firefighting group, to the Grand Forks Fire and Police departments, Altru Hospital and the ambulance service, as well.
The more than two dozen volunteers in the “smoke in the cabin” senario were made up of UND students, staff and others. They were given roles to play, such as “84-year-old woman with a facial laceration” to “6 year old with severe burns.”
The volunteers boarded the decommissioned plane and waited for the arrival of emergency personnel, while the plane slowly filled with theater-grade smoke. Observers and safety staff were on hand to ensure the safety of the volunteers.
Two Airport Rescue and Firefighter trucks arrived shortly thereafter and began to set up equipment.
By 8:47 a.m., many of the volunteers had been evacuated from the plane, as several ambulances and a Regional Response Trailer from Altru Hospital, as well as two Grand Forks Fire engines, arrived on scene and began to triage the “victims,” some of whom had to remain on the plane as their role didn’t allow them to walk.
By 9 a.m., firefighters were getting water into the plane and victims were being transported to Altru Hospital -- in character -- for hospital staff to treat.
UND aviation student Jeremy Berger volunteered as a victim.
“It was wild,” he said, while waiting for transport in the triage area. “It was a very good experience for an aviation student.”
The volunteers noted that visibility on the airplane was extremely limited due to the theater smoke.
“You couldn’t see anything; you had to follow the (hose) to exit the plane,” said Victoria Casement, a UND air traffic control student.
“It was like a haunted house,” said UND student Aaron Raimist.
ARFF Operations supervisor Joey Castiglione, one of the architects of the exercise, was on hand to lead his team.
“It was crazy,” he said. “Emergencies in their nature are chaotic, and this was no different.”
UND Aerospace was on site as well, using a drone to attempt to fly over the sight of the smoke-filled plane.
“When they actually went to fly the UAS, because of geofencing that’s around the airport, it actually wouldn’t operate,” said Riesinger. “Which is an interesting sidenote, because that’s a good thing ... that the geofencing is working.”
The drone was able to relocate to a different position west of the airport and provide a video feed from there.
An after action report will be prepared that analyzes the objectives of the exercise, including performance strengths and weaknesses, and will outline areas needing improvement.
“It is required by the FAA, but it’s not something that you pass or fail,” said Riesinger. “You go through process, and you go through the exercise as a learning event for all parties, so that we can re-evaluate and test plans, and then make adjustments to improve a potential emergency response in the future.”