“I was dead,” said Mandy Wallgren, of Phillipsburg, of her role in a full-scale emergency training exercise at Hays Regional Airport on Wednesday morning.
Some 10 agencies, and 50 law enforcement, including EMS and firefighters from Hays and Ellis County, responded with multiple ambulances and pumper trucks around 9 a.m. to the scenario on the airport taxiway with a steady breeze, mild temperatures and a sunny sky.
The simulated emergency at hand: a commercial jet carrying 30 passengers made a forced emergency landing, skidded to a stop, crushing its nose, with smoke billowing from the cockpit.
An “actor” sign taped to her vest, Wallgren’s face was dripping red with fake blood. A student at NCK Tech, she was one of 30 NCK nursing students playing the part of passengers.
“When they initially did the make-up, they told me it was facial lacerations and contusions,” said Wallgren, standing by as the exercise was winding down.
“And then they handed me this,” she said, holding up a white paper labeled Victim #7, which detailed her injuries as a head wound, with blue/gray finger tips and her chest not rising. “So I’m code black, and I went ‘well that escalated, I’m dead.’ ”
By mid-morning, at the exercise’s end, Hays fire Chief Ryan Hagans said it went as planned, with no hiccups or surprises.
“Everything went according to how I think it should go, or how I would expect it to go,” Hagans said. “It gives everybody a chance to practice and train for the real thing. We don’t get to move 30 patients normally.”
Responders included the Hays Fire Department, Ellis County Rural Fire Department, Ellis County Sheriff’s Department, Hays Police Department, Kansas Highway Patrol, Ellis County EMS, Kansas Highway Patrol and EagleMed.
“This is an FAA mandated exercise that airports of our size are required to do periodically,” Hagans said. “USD 489 was gracious enough to let us borrow one of their school buses to simulate the airplane with approximately 30 people total on the plane.”
Previously the airport crash exercise has been done every three years, but from this year on it will be every two years, Hagans said, with a table-top exercise during the in-between years when representatives from each agency meet at the airport and just talk through scenarios.
The agencies had been planning Wednesday’s exercise for several months.
“Today is the grand finale,” Hagans said. “It’s good to actually test our response system, a system that we have been planning for for multiple years. To simulate how long it takes people to get together; it’s a 10-minute drive from the fire station out here. In an emergency that’s a long time. We want to test how does everybody work together. How is it all going to take place?”
On Wednesday, firefighters, EMS and law enforcement arrived and secured the perimeter of the airport, put a foam barrier around the plane, assessed and evacuated the passengers, triaged those who needed it and transported patients to HaysMed.
Rooks County EMS coordinator Butch Post was one of four outside evaluators on hand invited to observe and evaluate the drill.
“It went really well,” Post said afterward. “I have a checklist they provided, and most everything on there they covered in the timely fashion they should. There’s always some aspect, but that’s the purpose, so you learn from it.”
Besides being a nursing student, Wallgren is a volunteer EMT in Phillips County.
“It was really interesting though to see how quickly they were able to assess the patients to try to get them off and get them to care,” Wallgren said. “Time really matters in these incidents, so you need your teams to work well together, so that was fun to watch how the firefighters worked together, and how they collaborated with EMS and how that all worked as one big unit. Each one has their skill set and their specialties, but we all have to work together when it comes down to actually helping people in our communities.”
It was beneficial to the nursing students to see what victims encounter, how the trauma occurred and what steps got them from the accident into the hospital, Wallgren said.
“It was quiet as compared to what a real emergency would be like, but you could still feel tension,” she said. “When they came up to me, and I know that I’m code black, but I thought ‘can they help me, is there anything they can do?’ And that would be the way I’d want to approach it, is this person somebody I can help? We’ve got a finite number of resources, how do we allocate that?”
Bobby Albers, a flight nurse-paramedic, has been with EagleMed for 19 years, and he was part of the exercise Wednesday also, in his capacity with the private, critical-care ambulance service at the airport.
Taking off with a pretend patient, the helicopter pulled out and lifted to a hover, then turned and took off into the wind.
“That just helps with the lift,” Albers said, explaining that normally the crew gets some brief information on the emergency they are responding to before they land. Often the crew is responding to someone injured in a car wreck, but it can also be other kinds of trauma, such as someone falling off a ladder, resulting in a spinal injury or pelvic fracture that requires treatment at a trauma center in Wichita or Kearney, Neb.
If the day had been a stormy, rainy day, as it has been recently, the exercise would have been rescheduled, said Ellis County fire Chief Darin Myers.
“We had a lot of people come in from out of town,” Myers said, including from the Transportation Security Administration, the FAA and SkyWest Airlines Inc., the commercial operator at Hays Regional Airport.
The exercise itself took about 40 minutes.
“I thought the communication was really good, it went well,” said Ellis County Undersheriff Scott Braun. “If it would have went longer we would have called out more guys, and rotated people out. Communication was key.”