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Safety: Disaster drill tests crews with mock plane crash

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Midway Fire and Rescue personnel tested themselves and their equipment Saturday in response to a mock disaster, an airplane explosion that scattered debris and passengers from Bucksport to Myrtle Beach International Airport.

Members of Georgetown County’s Technical Rescue Team that includes Midway and Georgetown County Fire and EMS personnel were called to Sandy Island to find and treat survivors and recover bodies during Operation Coastal Response.

Volunteer victims with injuries depicted in moulage were the first to be removed from Sandy Island and treated at a headquarters near The Reserve marina. Recovery of bodies was a more complex operation that tested the team’s training and procedures.

In a joint training exercise called Palmetto Thunder, Black Hawk helicopter crews based at McEntire Joint S.C. National Guard Base in Eastover transported members of the South Carolina Emergency Response Task Force, a civilian team of elite volunteers. Together the unit is called the S.C. Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (SC-HART). The scenario originally called for rescuers to be lowered into the Waccamaw River to retrieve passengers or bodies from the airplane, but cold weather lowered the water temperature to dangerous levels and exercises were conducted on land before being terminated.

Dan McManus, assistant state fire marshal, said it would have been a waste of time to allow the rescue team members into the water. “The cold weather dropped the water to 42 degrees, about 8 to 10 degrees colder than our doctor will allow us to play in,” he said. “We’d be risking hypothermia and wasting time and fuel.”

The teams got to fly for four to five hours Saturday morning, “working the muscle memory,” McManus said. It was beneficial training in that the 35 members of the two teams got an early start after spending the night in the gymnasium at Waccamaw Intermediate School. The air exercises were canceled shortly after noon when the wind picked up.

Midway Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said Operation Coastal Response served a valuable purpose in its complicated scenarios. Once the survivors were found and removed, recovery of the bodies began. Manikins were lodged in trees deep in the woods on Sandy Island. The initial challenge was moving men and equipment from boats at the island’s dock inland while maintaining communications. Once the bodies were found, rescuers had to improvise with ladders, ropes and pulleys to remove them from the trees without injuring themselves.

“Those trees could be cellphone towers or water towers in real life,” Eggiman said. “The techniques used are broad based. It could be somebody down in a creek off one of the bridges. There are a number of different possible scenarios we face.”

At one point during the recovery, rescuers were called to assist a member of their own team who had suffered a simulated heart attack as part of the drill. He had to be carried out of the woods on a stretcher.

Eggiman said the opportunity to train on such a big scenario doesn’t come along very often because of the amount of planning it takes, even down to the overtime pay of the participants. “It’s a tremendous benefit to have the opportunity to work together and evaluate procedures you have in place in a pain free environment, so to speak,” the chief said. “It’s pain free in that if you find a procedure doesn’t work well, you don’t have a patient jeopardized. If you find that a procedure doesn’t work at all, it gives you a chance to evaluate training, procedure and plans.”

Eggiman said another benefit was the opportunity for firefighters from the two departments to work together side by side. “From everything I’ve heard, the battalion chiefs touched on all cylinders,” Eggiman said. “All in all, I think it went very well. We got a good, positive benefit from it that reinforced several things and opened our eyes for several things we need to tweak. Sometimes you think you’ve got the greatest plan in the world, but when it’s exercised in the real world you see holes. It’s OK to go into these things hoping to find something. Someone told me if you learn absolutely nothing, maybe your scenario was not challenging enough.”

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