On The Job - Florida

Luis Fernandez recounts the fatal crash of Valujet Flight 592 and the intense efforts by various agencies to locate survivors.

METRO-DADE FIRE RESCUE DEPARTMENT Chief Dave Paulison Personnel: 1,340 career firefighters Apparatus: 35 pumpers, 23 TeleSqurts, seven aerials, two tankers, 54 EMS units, 11 battalion units, seven support units (air truck, hazmat, scene support, canteen van, water rescue, heavy cargo, tactical...

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The first rescuers to reach the scene encountered no flame or smoke, only thousands of handkerchief-sized pieces of debris. Their main priority was to search for survivors and assess the site for hazardous contaminants, a very tedious operation given the location of the crash and the size of the airboats. In addition, the airboats had to be pulled back several times for fear that a spark from their outboard engines would ignite the aviation fuel floating on the surface.

Forward Base Established

With night falling and the prospect of finding survivors diminishing, the focus of the MDFR efforts began to shift from a rescue priority to a role supporting the other agencies that would handle the recovery and identification of airplane parts and human remains. These agencies included the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office.

The incident commander and his staff began to prepare for the days, which stretched into weeks, ahead. A forward base camp, where supplies and personnel could stage, was established at a wide section of the levee road about 300 yards from the crash site. A helicopter landing zone was established, and communication and shelters were set up with resources from MDFR's Urban Search and Rescue team, Florida Task Force 1. Floating docks were airlifted to the forward base and put in place to compensate for the steep embankment on the levee road. A rehab sector was also established and supplied with air conditioning and plenty of fluids to help rescuers cope with the 85-plus-degree heat and high humidity.

Incident Management

From the beginning of the operation, the incident management system was put into effect. An eight-point incident action plan (IAP) was developed:

  1. Establish an organized structure.
  2. State objectives.
  3. Set operational periods.
  4. Summarize current actions.
  5. Establish a communication plan.
  6. Address safety issues.
  7. Perform medical threat assessments.
  8. Provide direction.

MDFR quickly sent out its mobile command post and provided the initial multi-agency command infrastructure. The command post was set up alongside the southernmost point of the L67 canal where it met U.S. 41. Decision makers from each agency came together in the command post. This allowed for immediate face-to-face communication, vital for a multi-jurisdictional disaster. Twice-daily briefings provided a forum for all agencies involved to address concerns and to be brought up to date on the day's activities.

Communication was initially almost impossible due to the number of units in the area and the remoteness of the site. By the second day, several amplified repeaters were set up and a separate tactical frequency was established to handle the increased communications. An infusion of cellular phones and hand-held radios was made possible by local cellular providers who also helped MDFR radio techs with installation. Seven Inmarsat satellite phones, two portable cell sites or COWS (cells on wheels) and 100 cell phones and hand-held radios were used for day-to-day communications.

On Sunday morning, a multi-agency group made up of MDFR, Metro-Dade police, the FAA and the NTSB announced that the rescue effort was suspended and the focus was now on recovery and identification. With that decision, MDFR began to devise a systematic decontamination process for all interagency personnel involved in the recovery effort. The police department supplied the recovery divers, while MDFR hazmat specialists prepared the entry and exit points for the divers, assisted in the donning and doffing of protective gear, performed decontamination procedures and controlled the runoff of hazardous waste.

The Memorial Service

Each evening, MDFR officials met with family members and advised them of the day's activities and outcomes. The families were told of the remoteness of the terrain, the excessive heat and high humidity, and the difficulty of trying to figure out what exactly had brought the plane down. But the family members wanted to see for themselves what was actually taking place in the Everglades.

Photo by Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
Metro-Dade Fire Rescue hazmat specialists decontaminate divers as they exit the airboats.

Photo by Lt. Roman Bas/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
Floating platforms were brought into the scene to aid in the loading of supplies.