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Live exercise tests air-crash response

Oct 09 2012
The Victoria International Airport tests its emergency-response plans with a live exercise. 

The Victoria International Airport tests its emergency-response plans with a live exercise.

Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist , Times Colonist

Victoria International Airport has a long history of everything going pretty much as it should: aircraft take off and land, families split up and are reunited - more than a million people so far this year have moved through the airport, which has seen 90,000 takeoffs and landings.

Few travellers have likely given much thought to the emergency crews who train for the rare occasion that things go terribly wrong.

But last week, emergency crews from the airport and surrounding municipalities took part in a live crash exercise - a simulated disaster complete with burning wreckage and people pretending to suffer from a variety of injuries.

Such exercises are mandated by Transport Canada to take place at major airports every four years, and each time they happen, there are lessons learned, said Terry Stewart, the airport's director of marketing and community relations.

The simulation featured 19 passengers and three crew members aboard a 70-passenger aircraft that had "crashed" at the end of runway 27. "We had one fatality, four serious injuries and the rest walked away," Stewart said.

As they would if it were the real thing, fire crews were called from Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney. Also called were B.C. Ambulance paramedics, the coroners office and Sidney/North Saanich RCMP.

"They got the opportunity to play out their emergency-response programs," Stewart said.

Air Canada Jazz participated as well, through the airline's emergency co-ordination centres in Victoria, the regional headquarters in Vancouver and the national headquarters in Halifax.

About 130 people took part in the exercise.

"It's a great training tool," Stewart said. "We got a chance to train some of our new employees."

Each fire department has its own chain of command, but when it comes to an airport disaster, there can only be one incident commander, usually the airport's fire chief.

Any friction that arose between various emergency personnel will be addressed at an upcoming debriefing session.

New issues pop up each time the exercise is run, Stewart said. This time it was clear the airport needs to be better connected with the public through Twitter and other social media.

"We've never had to do that before, so there are challenges on the media side," Stewart said, explaining a media centre tries to ensure information about the crash is available as transparently as possible.

"There are always challenges on the logistical side because nothing ever works perfectly."

The airport has its own emergency-planning centre that would handle the needs of affected passengers and their loved ones.

"We organize hotels and food and blankets and all the other things," he said.

One factor that wasn't in play on Thursday was the weather.

Crashes rarely happen on clear, sunny days with warm temperatures.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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