By STEVEN NALLEY
The Golden Triangle Regional Airport is holding its Triennial Disaster Drill Tuesday at 8 a.m., bringing GTRA staff, police, firefighters, medical crews and other emergency management personnel together to practice responding to a major aircraft accident.
Mike Hainsey, executive director of GTRA, said the Federal Aviation Administration requires all commercial service airports to review their Airport Emergency Plan every year. So, each October, GTRA conducts a tabletop exercise with emergency response agencies, Hainsey said, but every three years, the FAA requires a field exercise.
“We will have a large aircraft on the ramp, with some ‘victims’ inside and a smoke generator outside. The victims will be East Mississippi Community College nursing students. The fire departments won’t be spraying foam or water at the airplane, but we will have a location for them to do that if they want to exercise their equipment. The medical units will respond, triage, treat and transport the injured.”
While GTRA’s response to an act of terrorism would be similar to this drill, Hainsey said the drill is designed primarily as a response to an aircraft accident. Such accidents have been a concern since long before the 9/11 attacks, Hainsey said, and the Triennial Disaster Drill predates those attacks.
“The biggest goal in the exercise is to have good command, control and communications,” Hainsey said. “The biggest weakness in any disaster response is getting the right resources to the right place at the right time. Once we get a fire truck or ambulance to the scene, those first responders will do what they’re trained to do. It’s getting them there that often can be challenging.”
Hainsey said major players in the drill include fire, medical and law enforcement personnel from GTRA, Starkville, Oktibbeha County, West Point, Clay County, Columbus, Lowndes County, Columbus Air Force Base, the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration and many more.
Starkville Fire Department Chief Rodger Mann said because GTRA does not give out specific details about the drill, SFD cannot be completely prepared for it, and that is largely the point. By maintaining the element of surprise that comes with a real disaster, Mann said, the SFD and other first responders are forced to think on their feet instead of planning response in advance.
“In this line of work, obviously, you never know what the next call is going to involve, so you just have to be prepared when the call comes in,” Mann said. “We prepare all the time for all different kinds of scenarios. We train on a weekly basis.”
Mann said SFD and other first responders coordinate their efforts through a protocol called the Incident Command System. By practicing ICS, Mann said, first responders can be better prepared for any incident which requires large numbers of them to coordinate.
“We use the same unified structure or command system (for each drill), but the task is simply different,” Mann said. “This is something that’s been going on since the early ‘90s for us.”
Mann said SFD staff should be able to coordinate well with other firefighters because all Mississippi firefighters receive training and certification from the state’s fire academy. While SFD firefighters may use different training methods than firefighters in Columbus or West Point when not at the academy, Mann said, the results of the training will be the same and firefighters will be interchangeable at the drill.
“Everyone that’s not being used will be in a staging area,” Mann said. “They don’t care if they’re Columbus, West Point or Starkville firefighters. They’ll just say, ‘I need 15 firefighters.’”