The Wisconsin Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing Fire Emergency Services worked alongside their civilian colleagues from neighboring fire departments during a full-scale exercise at the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wisconsin June 3.
The training scenario could easily be categorized as "worst-case scenario." A despondent ex-boyfriend armed with a handgun and a vest bomb apprehends his ex-girlfriend ó an employee at the Dane County Regional Airport ó and forces his way onto a commercial airplane, demanding to fly to Mexico. The pilots convince the hijacker that a mechanical failure is preventing takeoff. Negotiations break down with the hijacker, who detonates his vest bomb ó causing fire and considerable damage to the plane, as well as killing several passengers and severely wounding the rest.
The 115th Fighter Wing Fire Emergency Services, already located at Truax Field ó the airfield used by the Dane County Regional Airport ó are the first to respond. They encounter a burning fuselage, and dozens of bodies strewn across the pavement.
Timothy Butcher, director of operations and public safety for Dane County Regional Airport, said the full-scale exercise was in line with the 115th Fighter Wing Fire Emergency Services' expectations.
"This exercise escalated what they see on a day-to-day basis, but it's well within their capabilities," Butcher said. "They are our first responders for anything that happens at the airport. I would put our guys up against any airport fire department anywhere."
"We were pretty involved and active the entire day of the exercise," said Master Sgt. Gary Peck, fire chief for the 115th Fighter Wing Fire Emergency Services. "We were involved in command and control with a unified command system with local law enforcement, and then responded to the rescue and fire suppression operations, and also performed emergency medical services and triage."
A KC-135 Stratotanker from the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee played a role in the exercise as the commercial aircraft commandeered by the hijacker. However, the burning aircraft was played by a stunt-double ó an Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting fuselage, which provided firefighters with a realistic cabin fire environment as well as external flame banks to provide firefighters the chance to hone their extinguishing skills. The fuselage generated plenty of smoke as well as a soundtrack that seemed to blend human screams with twisting metal.
"Yeah, it was great," said one member of the 115th Fighter Wing Fire Emergency Services who asked not to be identified, as the exercise called for participants to refer questions to the public information officer. "Good training, just like an actual aircraft."
Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center provided the mannequins as well as mock body parts for the exercise.
Dozens of volunteers portrayed injured aircraft passengers in various stages of distress. Realistic moulage was applied by Glitter to Gore LLC on the drill floor at Joint Force Headquarters, adjacent to Truax Field and near the location of the exercise. Volunteers also had cards indicating the severity of their injury. Some were able to walk to a medical triage site, while others needed to be carried on backboards and litters.
Besides the realistic injury makeup, volunteers provided some convincing acting as firefighters rendered assistance.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," one woman insisted in a wavering voice as two firefighters prepared to maneuver her onto a backboard. "Check my brother ó he's not talking to me. Please, please ó help my brother, please."
Planning for this event began 12 months ago. The goal of the exercise, conducted every three years, is to provide an opportunity for emergency response organizations to respond to a mock emergency, perform in a realistic environment and operate with other organizations on a scale they ordinarily would not experience outside of a real event. Local fire departments from Madison, Sun Prairie and Maple Bluff participated in the exercise.
"Another goal of the exercise is to provide a sufficient amount of familiarization to the responding city, county and township fire departments ó that they understand the differences between structural and aircraft firefighting," Peck said.