Fire and Rescue Training Institute puts local first responders to the test
By: Jim Erickson
The “flight” was approaching St. Louis for a landing at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport when air traffic controllers heard the pilot of the cargo jet report he was having chest pains.
Because Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield Valley was closer, the plane was cleared for an emergency landing there.
Then, the situation became worse. The co-pilot radioed that he was having difficulty breathing and would try to set the plane down on Spirit’s shorter but nearest runway as quickly as possible. The aircraft came in under less than total control, smacked down hard on the runway, losing part of its landing gear in the process. It careened off the runway and across a grassy strip and taxiway until finally coming to a halt on the ramp adjoining a flight school.
The pilot and co-pilot stumbled out of the plane and collapsed on the tarmac. There was no fire but a white gas began to pour from the open door behind them.
The good news is this incident never occurred. But it was the scenario of an aircraft emergency drill at Spirit involving the Monarch Fire Protection District and other nearby emergency crews who supported the response.
Providing the primary prop for the drill was the Fire and Rescue Training Institute from the University of Missouri Extension operation in Columbia. The mobile aircraft rescue firefighting trainer resembles a plane but is mounted on a flatbed trailer towed by a truck to virtually any location where first responders need training to develop and hone skills required for dealing with aviation emergencies. Wing-like structures on either side fold back along the side of the “fuselage” for over-the-road transport.
One of only a handful of such devices in the nation, the trainer is equipped to replicate fires anywhere they might occur on a plane and, in this drill, to emit a harmless “smoke” simulating a chemical that had leaked out of its container and vaporized. All the various conditions are controlled by a nearby instrument console.
For purposes of the exercise, the chemical involved was supposed to be dichlorosilane, a toxic compound used as a starting material for semi-conducting silicon layers in microelectronics.
The firefighter-paramedics had learned what the plane was carrying via a simulated call to the cargo company. Such information would be important in any similar emergency because reference books carried on first response vehicles provide details on a huge list of chemicals, their dangers and how to deal with them.
In this drill, weather conditions called for evacuating nearby downwind buildings and blocking traffic from entering the danger zone, actions that also were simulated.
Battling the chemical, while rescuing the pilot and co-pilot (two life-like mannequins), required the emergency crew members to don their breathing apparatus and approach the “plane” behind a heavy mist of water from fire hoses. The water also helped wash chemical contamination from the injured pilots’ clothing and bodies.
Tom Vineyard, Monarch fire chief, said outside evaluators observed and later reviewed the actions of the first responders and other steps taken to deal with the simulated emergency.
Also involved in the drill were the St. Louis County Haz-Mat team; Central County 911; Metro West, Cottleville, Pattonville and Creve Coeur fire protection districts; and the Des Peres Department of Public Safety.