Don't be alarmed: SRQ Airport holds disaster drill

srocco@bradenton.comApril 17, 2014 

SARASOTA ­-- Walter Cenal and his 9-year-old daughter sat on the ground with their backs resting against a bus. Blood oozed from a gash smeared across his forehead while his little girl's arm was bleeding from a deep cut.

And yet, they were laughing.

Father and daughter were part of a 16-plus group of "victims" role-playing in a Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport disaster drill held at 3 p.m. Wednesday. Firefighters caked on gory makeup to make them look like victims of a plane caught on fire.

"All my kids are home-schooled so this is a nice thing for them to do," said Cenal, who also brought his three other children. Most victims were volunteers from nearby, but Cenal traveled from Tampa to participate.

The drill mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration must be completed by the airport every three years to renew an operating certificate. The FAA lets the airport decide on what manner of simulated crisis it would use.

In 2011, SRQ practiced for a terrorist situation. This year, officials decided to test a fire caused by a gas leak

on the tarmac, said Lionel Guilbert, airport operations manager.

More than 250 fire, EMS and police officials participated in the 90-minute drill. SRQ used a bus as a stand-in for an airplane. No fire was used in the drill.

In a fire situation, first-responders have to follow certain procedures, Guilbert said.

First, the Airport Rescue and Firefighting Department must put out the fire using special high-pressure water trucks to spray the aircraft. Once the fire is out, rescuers start triage by identifying the injured and the dead and grouping them based on severity. Victims are either treated on scene or taken to a hospital.

Last, the National Transportation Safety Board is dispatched to investigate.

The airport and airline must maintain a family gathering center where victims' families can congregate, get counseling and receive live updates from public information officers.

"The family usually shows up to the ticket counter and then we take them back to the family center," Guilbert said.

The mock family center was in full swing Wednesday afternoon. Nearly 20 volunteers, along with American Red Cross workers and public information officers, were packed into a private airport building to await details on the fire.

"It's been 10 minutes. The guy said he'd be back in 10 minutes," complained Dean Anthony, who pretended he had three cousins in the incident.

Finally, the airport public information officer made a statement: "There has been some casualties. We know there's been some injuries. We're working to confirm the casualties now and will release the information as soon as we get it."

People then demanded information immediately. Red-aproned workers from the American Red Cross soothed them and offered counseling.

Airport officials said they were pleased with the outcome of the drill and feel confident that they would be prepared for a similar crisis.

"There was a little bit of confusion with communication...but overall I think it went really well and we accomplished our goals," Guilbert said.

Sabrina Rocco, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow @sabrinarocco on Twitter.

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