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Queens Chronicle

How the first responders prepare for air disasters

At JFK Airport drill, crews practice procedures designed to save lives

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Posted: Thursday, June 5, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 12:36 pm, Thu Jun 12, 2014.

A man’s voice, soaked in static, echoed through the smoke.

“How many we got left in there?” he asked in a thick Brooklyn accent.

“We got 10 in the back,” a man, decked out in metallic fire gear, responded into a handheld radio.

“Eleven!” a faint voice yelled from behind the curtain of smoke.

“Sorry, make that 11,” the man responded

“Ten-four,” the crackling voice responded.

A few seconds later, the firefighter picked up his radio again.

“All live victims are off the plane,” he said. “I repeat all live victims are off the plane.”

Outside looks of concern and trepidation crossed the crowd of emergency workers who were in earshot of the comments like a wave. Were there 11 fatalities in the plane?

Well, not literally.

The 11 victims inside the Embraer jet on JFK Airport’s tarmac Tuesday morning were actually just dummies, part of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s emergency response exercise.

Using an aircraft loaned to the Port Authority by JetBlue, the agency’s emergency response team, joined by the FDNY, NYPD and other assisting organizations, held a drill, practicing their response in the event of an air disaster at the airport.

“It’s all important to insure the safety of the public and that we respond properly and we mitigate and we offer assistance as needed,” said Inspector Louis Koumoutsos, chief of the Port Authority Police Department.

The last fatal air crash at JFK Airport was 39 years ago when Eastern Airlines Flight 66 came down just before the runway on Rockaway Boulevard in Rosedale in a thunderstorm on June 24, 1975 killing 112 people. Since then there have been several incidents in which planes have skidded off the runway or made emergency landings. One notable incident was TWA Flight 843 on July 30, 1992. The San Francisco-bound jet carrying 292 people aborted takeoff, slid off the runway and burned. Everyone survived.

Tuesday’s demonstration involved an incident similar to Flight 843, where an aircraft is intact, but on fire.

Several dozen observers, mostly executives from companies that do business at JFK, including several airlines, were on hand to watch the simulation. A Port Authority employee guided them through the exercise.

First, Port Authority emergency crews arrive on the scene, seconds after an incident occurs. The first response vehicle, called an RIB, carries 1,500 gallons of water and several hundred gallons of foam. Along with two other vehicles that respond immediately after it, they will drop water and foam around a jet to prevent any fire from spreading. A second vehicle helps pump water for FDNY responders.

Donning fire-retardant metallic garb and gear, Port Authority fire crews are the first to approach the burning plane. A mobile staircase is sent to the jet, with crews having to make a split-second decision on which door to use for the evacuation, assuming the plane’s emergency evacuation slides are not functioning. Firefighters check for flames near the door and when it’s clear, storm the fuselage, helping passengers — volunteers hired by the Port Authority — out one by one. Some walk out with only minor injuries — the so-called walking wounded. Other volunteers lie on the tarmac, some immobile and others writhing in pain. Dummies, representing fatally or seriously injured victims, are also strewn about. Crews will determine the condition of each victim.

As rescue crews storm the plane and move to get people out, the exercise continues in the area. Port Authority crews are joined by FDNY trucks, which rush up the taxiway in a caravan of flashing lights and screaming sirens. The NYPD joins the fray, as do ambulances from the FDNY, local hospitals and local volunteer corps. A command location is set up nearby where all agencies gather to coordinate the next phases of response. Within 10 minutes of the incident, the tarmac is a blanket of flashing red and blue lights. An investigation also begins at this point into the cause of the incident, often with the FBI involved.

Walking wounded and those who can be immediately moved are taken to a triage area a few hundred yards away, followed by the more seriously wounded , who are brought there in special pulleys that allow crews to pull the wounded on a yellow mat to the triage location, where they are then placed on gurneys and taken to the hospital.

After the simulation, crews gathered to go over the exercise and discuss any issues and offer suggestions for the next one.

The Port Authority holds drills at least once a year, and sometimes more often than that, at all five of the agency’s airports. Though the exercises are generally the same, there are some differences.

“The scenarios are common, but we kind of change it every now and then,” Koumoutsos said, noting that they will change the cause or the severity of the incident often. “We kind of splinter every now and throw in some interjects that kind of throw it off.”

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