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  • Dylan Anderson

First responders from Routt County and beyond simulate deadly plane crash at Yampa Valley airport

In what may be the most elaborate practice exercise done locally, officials tested their plan for how to respond to a mass casualty event.

Officials from Routt County and beyond gathered at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport on Wednesday to practice responding to an event they hope never happens.

“At 9 a.m. this morning Exercise Flight 783, from Denver to Hayden, a commercial flight, scheduled flight declared an in-flight emergency just prior to landing,” said Airport Director Kevin Booth in a mock press conference on Wednesday afternoon. “Subsequently, upon landing departed the runway on the north side. An Aircraft fire was caused by the accident and our Yampa Valley Regional Airport firefighters responded immediately to extinguish the fire and initiate care for the passengers and crew.”

Booth then handed off the podium to Steamboat Springs Deputy Fire Chief Travis Wilkinson, who served as the simulated exercise's incident commander. Wilkinson revealed how serious the incident being simulated was, with 59 of the 120 passengers on board the aircraft not surviving the accident and another 52 of them being injured.

The tone of the mock press conference was somber, with officials trying to make it as realistic as possible. (They did break character a few times, like when Booth reappeared as a representative from the National Transportation Safety Board.) But the realism involved in the exercise was not just limited by how officials spoke about it.

Helping them with the simulation were nearly 40 volunteers who arrived early that morning, were given cards directing them how they were injured and were given moulage to help depict those injuries. Photos from the simulation show some volunteers with visible (fake) injuries that included simple cuts, compound fractures to the complete loss of limb. Booth said injuries simulated included one child who was choking on candy to some whose injuries were so severe they died during the incident. A few CPR dummies simulated passengers who died as the plane crashed.

Caption: Nearly 40 volunteers participated in the simulated plane crash, with some getting elaborate moulage indicating their injuries. (Routt County/Courtesy)

On the side of the runway, officials simulated an aircraft fire, which firefighters focused on putting out first while the medical response mobilized. A U.S. Air Force medical team from Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs joined the exercise to practice as well, triaging passengers and working to get them to hospitals in Craig, Steamboat Springs and on the Front Range.

“You don’t want to be doing this for the first time and meeting the people who are going to support you in what is a very difficult response on the day of,” Booth said. “This is a chance for us to exercise the way we think we will during a very challenging mishap, and work with the people that we know we are going to work with during the real thing.”

“It’s stressful,” Booth continued. “It’s good to put the team under stress and see how we react and learn how to do it better or learn what really works well and make sure we keep doing it like that.”

Routt County Emergency Operations Director David “Mo” DeMorat said Wednesday’s exercise was the culmination of the last six months of work to craft a mass casualty emergency response plan for Routt County. When crafting this plan, DeMorat and his team have assessed what resources they have to respond locally and how to mitigate when resources are not available.

“Then we do an exercise to validate that plan,” DeMorat said. “The exercise isn’t over because while the live play is over, now we go in to the after-action process. What didn’t work so well that we have to go back and modify that plan?”

Caption: A U.S. Airforce medical team from Colorado Springs flew a C-130 up to participate in the simulation. (Routt County/Courtesy)

Emergency personnel practice these types of situations each year. They have simulated failure of the Stagecoach Dam, a significant wildfire starting locally and a hazardous materials spill from a rollover vehicle crash, to name a few. DeMorat said these have helped perfect the various emergency response plans they have in place.

“You can sit in your office and do a plan, but until pieces start moving you might miss something,” DeMorat continued.

DeMorat said pretty much every first responder agency in Northwest Colorado participated in Wednesday’s simulation, including all five Routt County fire districts, the new Hayden Police Chief, medical personnel from Craig and other state and federal officials, to name a few.

As passenger injuries were assessed, they were taken to various locations depending on the extent of their injuries. If they needed to go to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, the transport ambulance was taken out of service for 50 minutes to simulate the drive to Steamboat. One hanger was set up to deal with injuries while another was used to organize the dead.

Routt County Coroner Mitch Locke was on scene as well, and even the drive time to get a refrigerated van up from Eagle County was simulated.

Caption: CPR dummies were used to simulate passengers that died in the plane crash at the center of Wednesday's exercise. (Routt County/Courtesy)

DeMorat said they made up the scenario practiced on Wednesday, keeping some of the details from key personnel to allow them to react to the situation as it happened. Even the location of the mock press conference was kept from local media (Shannon Lukens from Steamboat Radio and myself with The Yampa Valley Bugle) who helped lob questions at officials about the simulated plane crash earlier in the day.

Scripting the scene isn’t easy, DeMorat said. Instead of reaching out to hospitals on the Front Range who could provide medical support from the air, they would need to assume they would, or would not get that support. He said they didn’t stage anyone in anticipation of the event either, so that their response times would be similar to what they would be should a similar plane crash actually occur.

“We try to make it as realistic as we can, and also leave a lot of it what we call player action,” DeMorat said. “We’re not scripting what (Wilkinson) is going to do. He is the incident commander, he is going to do what he thinks needs to be done.”

Following the press conference, officials broke off into a meeting they called a “hot wash” to go over the successes of the day and what needs improvement. Over the coming months and after action report will be drafted and distributed to those who participated. That plan will inform where DeMorat’s emergency response plan may need some additional work.

Even during the simulation, DeMorat said he had a discussion with West Routt Fire Chief Trevor Guire about how to better resupply medical personnel working to assess injuries on scene.

“I don’t think we have done one to this extent before,” DeMorat said of the simulation. “We had a lot of volunteers, a lot of participating ambulances, a lot of moving parts. I do think we learned a lot and that will come out in the after-action process.”

Top Photo Caption: Officials simulated a plane crash at Yampa Valley Regional Airport on Wednesday, even including a plane fire that firefighters needed to deal with before helping triage the injured. (Routt County/Courtesy)


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