FORT DRUM — Civilian and military first responders teamed up Wednesday, moving around fire, smoke and uneven terrain to aid dozens of supposed victims of a mock double helicopter crash near the hamlet of Spragueville.
Though the crews accomplished their mission, the post’s annual mass casualty drill showed some areas of improvement to be made.
“There’s always lessons learned,” said Michael J. LeCuyer, St. Lawrence County’s emergency director. “We look at the positives first, and we identify what went well, and then we look at things that didn’t go so well, and look to correct those for future events.”
The high number of casualties, 39 killed and wounded, and simultaneous calls to Fort Drum, Jefferson County and St. Lawrence County emergency dispatchers meant that the three entities had to work together quickly to coordinate their response.
“It really stresses the system,” said John P. Simard, the post’s exercise and plans officer.
The site, at the northern edge of Fort Drum’s range on the county line, allowed St. Lawrence County responders to join the drill for the first time, an significant development in preparedness given the military flights in the area.
“We wanted to have an opportunity to participate in this event, so that we ... would know what the military’s expectations are should something happen in St. Lawrence County,” Mr. LeCuyer said.
The drill started at about 8 a.m., with crews responding to the scene of a dummy helicopter that, under the scenario, had clipped a tree and crashed. A parked Chinook helicopter represented a hard landing after it hypothetically was hit by debris from the first helicopter.
With smoke hanging over a lumpy field seemingly designed to roll ankles, crews fanned out to evaluate the seriousness of soldier injuries. Simulating victims falling from the helicopters prior to crashing, some soldiers were positioned deep in the surrounding tree line.
Wounded soldiers were taken to facilities in Gouverneur, Watertown, Carthage and by helicopter to Syracuse and Burlington, Vt. Emergency crews from the post, Antwerp, Black River, Carthage, Evans Mills, Gouverneur, Indian River as well as LifeNet and Guilfoyle Ambulance joined in the drill, along with a pair of medical helicopters from the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.
“We have a lot of moving pieces,” Mr. Simard said before the event started. “That’s going to be the challenge.”
A fire later started inside the crashed dummy helicopter, leading post fire crews to shoot foam that both put out the flames and drenched a pair of role-playing soldiers nearby.
Wednesday’s scenario was seen as similar to a 2003 disaster near the post’s Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, where the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter killed 11 of the 13 soldiers on board.
“This is a potential situation,” Mr. Simard said. “We’ve got a lot of helicopters that fly in this area.”
Not all of the pieces went together smoothly. Differences in military and civilian policies led to a lack of clarity regarding who was initially leading operations at the scene.
“When you’re dealing with Fort Drum, they deal with things a little differently,” said Mr. LeCuyer, the St. Lawrence County emergency director. “We have to respect their rules, but we also want to provide the best care to the victims, as well.”
Patient condition labeling appeared to be inconsistent among units, which was seen as possibly creating confusion and costing time. Some crews spread thin on personnel could be seen asking non-participant soldiers for help.
Despite these challenges, the soldiers were eventually gathered and moved out for care.
At Samaritan Medical Center, staff used the drill as an opportunity to test their decontamination equipment, spraying off soldiers that could be covered in fuel if Wednesday’s scenario were real. Soldiers then were triaged in the loading area of the hospital’s emergency department based on their condition.
“Something like this could happen in real life,” said Stephen G. Falk, the hospital’s emergency management HAZCOM coordinator. “You have to be ready for that.”
The exercise had some lighter moments. Before going to their locations as crash victims, soldier roleplayers were seen smearing costume blood on one another from a repurposed milk jug. As they waited for care, a few of them could be seen checking their phones and taking pictures. After facing fictional sprains, cuts, burns and lacerations, the group of about 20 soldiers at Samaritan were rewarded with a pizza party for their efforts.
The importance of such training was seen Tuesday in Italy, as crews responded to the collision of two fighter jets. Video of Wednesday’s training on post can be viewed at http://wdt.me/drum-crash-drill.