Responders in South Dakota Put in Hot Seat

The four triage flags blew in the wind as emergency crews ran by.

Closest to Aberdeen Fire Station 3 at the airport was the red one. It stood for most critical. Screwed into the ground farther away sat the yellow. And then came the green, where the least serious victims would be stationed.

Had the disaster drill been real, the dead would have been put by the black flag, farthest away from the emergency crews.

"There wouldn't be any reason to have them closer," said Kurt Smith, the drill's public information officer, as he watched from nearby.

Thursday's drill involved more than 10 agencies and 150 people, many of whom were volunteer victims.

The situation: The scenario was anything but simple: The government tracks a terrorist to the Minneapolis airport where the terrorist hijacks an airplane carrying approximately 40 people. The terrorist, who is ill and infected with pneumonic plague, forces the pilot to take off while authorities notify the Transportation Security Administration and other federal agencies that the plane is headed west and has enough fuel to take it approximately 300 miles. Because of a lack of fuel, the plane attempts an emergency landing at Aberdeen Regional Airport, but the landing gear fails to work properly and it crashes. Although more than half of the passengers are killed, the terrorist survives. He flees the scene before being captured a short time later by Aberdeen police.

The drill involved airport staff, the Aberdeen Rural Fire Department, Transportation Security Administration, Aberdeen Fire and Rescue, Aberdeen Police Department, Brown County Emergency Management, Citizens Emergency Response Team, South Dakota Highway Patrol, Brown County Sheriff's Office, Avera St. Luke's Hospital, Salvation Army and the state Office of Emergency Management.

"I'm required to do a drill every year, just as all the rest of the agencies are," Brown County Emergency Management Director Freddie Robinson said. "Instead of everyone having a little drill, we decided to have just one big one. There was a lot going on here today."

There sure was.

At the scene: While victims were littered near the crash site, more sat on a bus, which was used to simulate the plane. Sand bags, thrown across the area, signified the dead. Emergency crews, all wearing masks to protect themselves from the pneumonic plague, moved in. Nearby, the Aberdeen Fire and Rescue Hazmat team set up, ready to decontaminate anyone who went close to the scene.

Aberdeen police had arrived just minutes earlier. Carrying fake rubber guns, four officers captured the terrorist as evaluators working under the drill's seven goals - Hazmat response and decontamination, law enforcement response, communications, airport fire/rescue, hospital response, coordination between agencies and incident command systems - walked around with clip boards to record how the drill was going.

"Most agencies already know where they're deficient, but it never hurts to measure it," Robinson said. "We bring in somebody from the outside to evaluate everything. We know we're not going to be 100 percent correct in everything we do. We're going to make mistakes. We use this to measure how we can fix them."

Evaluators: Jason Forrest, regional coordinator of South Dakota Emergency Management, served as an evaluator for the emergency management side of the drill, including coordination between agencies and incident command personnel.

"There are things that we're able to look at and things we aren't," Forrest said. "With a drill like this, you're not going to be able to look at everything. It's just too large to do that. We'll usually evaluate five to 10 things."

Lynn Gauer, an emergency medical technician and an emergency medical services instructor for the state, was on hand from Edmunds County to evaluate the EMS side.

"I basically wanted to watch how the triage is done, and how those working set their patients' priorities," Gauer said. "Things went pretty smooth considering all that needed to be done. The heat surely didn't help though."

Temperatures that reached a high of 95 left crews and volunteers vulnerable to the heat. CERT members ran around passing out water supplied by the Salvation Army.

Volunteers appreciated: "A big thing about this whole deal is that we couldn't have done this without the volunteers," Robinson said. "And the biggest thing is that we didn't have anyone hurt doing it."

Those on hand were especially concerned with the health of the volunteer victims, many whom spent more than an hour in direct sunlight. Victim Judy Hauge of Aberdeen said they were kept well hydrated.

"I'm having fun," said Hauge, who played a 21-year-old obese female who is very loud and excited. "This is a serious drill, but you have to make it fun, too."

Hauge was joined by another volunteer, 15-year-old Mindy Peltier of Aberdeen.

Peltier played the role of a 70-year-old female who was feeling faint.

"Everything took a little longer than I thought it would, but it wasn't that bad," Peltier said. "It was hot, but they were giving us plenty of water."

Smith, who volunteered as the public information officer, said slower response times were to be expected.

"Of course they'll be slower because they're not responding red light to siren," he said. "It's not an actual emergency."

Odds of it really happening: As for whether this kind of scenario would ever happen in Aberdeen?

"We all hope nothing like this does," said Capt. Dave McNeil of the Aberdeen Police Department, "but we know from what we've seen that it can. There are a lot of real threats out there. The best thing to do is to prepare and train so we can be assured that if it does happen, we're ready."

Distributed by the Associated Press