Just after 10 a.m. last Wednesday, the call went out to all emergency agencies in Hay River that a plane had crash landed on the runway at the Merlyn Carter Airport. The number of casualties was unknown, but officials knew the crash had been caused by a drunk driver having found his way onto the runway in his vehicle.
Of course, the plane was actually a coach bus, the casualties were heavily made-up Grade 7 students and the drunk-driver was a volunteer faking inebriation for the sake of the exercise.
“The exercise was a success,” said Mike Handley, operations, safety and emergency planning officer for the GNWT. “The key players were all engaged and we ran through all the procedures that would be activated in the event of a real emergency.”
The fire department, ambulance service, RCMP, health authority and airport officials participated in the simulation, required every four years by the GNWT. The intent is to evaluate the response of these agencies and train their members in the event of an actual catastrophe. For this exercise, about 25 Grade 7 students were enrolled as casualties, varying from a bump on the head to chest pains, with some having to hang out on the bus the entire time playing dead.
“I think I’ve got an easy thing to play,” said Tenille Patterson, who got to pretend she was a seven-year-old girl who had lost both her parents in the crash. “Mostly I think I’m going to run around and scream a lot.”
Handley could not release the results of the exercise immediately, though he did say he observed both positive and negative indicators in the joint response effort. The agencies would go through their own evaluation processes independent of his, as well as a combined report encompassing everyone.
Sometimes, he said, such simulations serve to highlight the ineffectiveness of procedures themselves. Mass casualties don’t happen very often and the systems used to respond to them can become outdated. Practice exercises can show where both procedures and emergency responder training need to be beefed up.
“The whole intent of doing the exercise is being able to activate all the agencies,” said Handley. “We evaluate whether they’re able to carry out operations safely. It’s all about safety.”