With images of burning planes on runways like those in San Francisco recently fresh in our minds, the Rhinelander Oneida County Airport and area fire departments, tested their ability to respond to a disaster at the airport with a live drill Monday.
The airport and local fire departments get together once a year to go over different scenarios and every three years, it involves a live drill like the one on Monday.
“I have been on the Rhinelander Fire Department for 14 years so I have done 14 of these,” Assistant Fire Chief Tom Waydick said. “Every time we have learned something new. Every time we have gotten better and more prepared.”
Monday’s drill involved a situation where a plane taxiing away from the terminal catches fire in one of its engines. Full tanks of jet fuel and the hot heat make the situation one of the most dangerous on the ground.
But the firefighters and emergency personnel are not just going through the motions, they face simulated conditions that include real flames and a partial fuselage designed to feel like the real thing.
“We contract with a company out of Minnesota and then bring in a mock up fuselage and victims,” airport manager Joe Brauer said. “It is a live burn that simulates the real thing.”
Brauer said the FAA mandates the airport train its staff year round, which includes “table top” exercises where different scenarios are discussed and the live burns. Brauer said events like the plane crash in San Francisco, where three died including one run over by first responders, is why these drills are necessary.
“Specialists reviewed the response and we all learn from it,” Brauer said. “That is why we do this training.”
The training Monday began with the simulated plane catching fire after leaving the terminal with passengers aboard.
The first to respond to the scene was the airport fire truck while the Rhinelander Fire Department was alerted and mutual aid calls went out.
“We have a full time fire fighter that is on duty at the airport,” Waydick said. “Our fire department in Rhinelander is full time so we can respond depending on traffic in 4 to 5 minutes once we get the call.”
The airport fire truck, which is equipped with two automatic nozzles, begins attacking the fire right away with its responsibility to create a path to the plane that is safe for medical personnel.
As more fire fighters arrive, they approach the plane with hoses and assess the situation.
“Everyone knows what they are supposed to do,” Brauer said. “They all have a checklist that they need to go through.”
The entire drill lasted about two hours and the fire was restarted later for surrounding volunteer departments to get their practice in. In all about 75 to 80 firefighters were on the scene according to Brauer.
While the exercise was good practice for the area firefighters and emergency personnel, luckily they have never had to battle the real thing.
“We have never really had an incident out here,” said Brauer, knocking the wall behind him. “We have been fortunate in that respect.”