On The Job - Florida

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 rescue)
Population: 1.9 million
Area: 1,868 square miles

"Critter 592...Critter 592..."

The air traffic controller at Miami International Airport frantically repeated the call signs for Valujet Flight 592 but no response came. On Saturday, May 11, 1996, at 2:12 P.M., the hotline rang at the Metro-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) station at Miami International Airport. A DC-9 jetliner that had just taken off enroute to Atlanta dropped off the screen about 20 miles west of the airport in what is known as Everglades National Park. It had made its ascent and then disappeared, reported the air traffic controller to the fire station.

Photo by Bill Glass/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
An aerial view of the crash site. At the top of the photo is the levee where the forward command post was located.

Photo by Lt. Roman Bas/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
Family and friends of the victims of Valujet Flight 592 gather for a memorial service, just 300 yards from the crash site.

Immediately, the watch officer at the airport fire station scrambled all airport units and alerted MDFR's dispatch center. At the same time, a fisherman in a remote section of western Dade County used his cell phone to call 911. He said he saw a huge passenger jet plummet into the mud and disappear.

Within minutes, close to 100 MDFR units responded from all across Dade County toward the crash site. The tower reported that 109 people, including five crew members, were onboard. No one within MDFR initially realized what a comprehensive and lengthy operation the department was about to conduct.

"The fire service has traditionally been called upon to serve the community in various roles," MDFR Fire Chief Dave Paulison said. "This disaster just illustrates the depth and breadth of our capabilities."

MDFR's primary objective was to provide search and rescue operations at the crash site. Once it became clear there were no survivors, the objective was to establish a base of operations and be able to expand as needed. This included safety, medical, decontamination and logistical support.

With the experience gained in responding to disasters in such places as Oklahoma City, Mexico City, the Philippines and in South Florida with Hurricane Andrew, the department was ready with a pre-arranged cache of equipment and resources and, more important, several hundred personnel experienced in disaster operations.

Initial Operations

The first unit on the scene was MDFR Air Rescue 2, a Bell 412 air medical transport helicopter. As it hovered over the scene, disbelief came over those listening to the dispatch frequency.

Photo by Bill Glass/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
The media presence was enormous. More than 100 reporters attended daily briefings set up by the department's public information office.

Photo by Bill Glass/Metro-Dade Fire Rescue
Communication officers relay information to the command post.

"We have hundreds of pieces of debris, no large parts are visible and there does not seem to be any survivors at this time," the helicopter pilot said.

In fact, it was hard to believe a DC-9 had crashed here at all. The terrain where the plane had gone down was difficult at best: six- to eight-foot-high razor-sharp sawgrass, four feet of water and between three and five feet of soft mud beneath the water. Typical Everglades.

The crash site was in the far western section of Dade County, and accessibility was a major concern. A dirt road alongside a levee led rescuers to a spot about 300 yards west of the crash site but that took more than an hour by vehicle from the main access road to the south, U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail. The alternatives were helicopter, which took about 10 minutes, or boat up canal L67, which took 30 minutes. The only direct access to the site was by airboat. With such a long distance to cover, it took hours to get even a small complement of supplies and personnel to the crash site.

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.

With the cooperation of the NTSB, and at the request of Valujet and family members, MDFR set out on Thursday, May 16, to honor the families' wishes and bring them to the crash site. This would turn out to be no easy task. First, a time would need to be decided on that would not interfere with the recovery operation, but would get them off the levee before dark. We found late afternoon to be best. Second, five buses would need to be provided for the 2 1/2-hour drive to the crash site. Each bus was staffed with two MDFR paramedics, not only to provide medical assistance but also to answer any questions the family members might have. Grief counselors and clergy members were also on each bus to provide emotional support.

On the way to the crash site the buses passed through both command posts, as sunburned rescue and recovery workers lined the roadway to pay their respects to the families. The buses came to a stop just past the forward base. This was as close as the families could safely go. As they exited the buses, utter silence fell over the entire area. Tears flowed, not only from the victims' families but also from the rescuers, for this was the closest that rescuer and victim would ever come. A multi-denominational service was held at the levee, and those attending were allowed to put flowers and other mementos on a Florida Game and Freshwater Fish airboat, which would then place them directly over the crater.

Once the ceremony was over, and dusk was rapidly approaching, family members were asked to board the buses back to the hotel but no one moved. The emotional impact on the victims' families was just too strong. People began to fill little cups with soil, they took palm fronds and snapped photos of the area, all in an effort to preserve the memory of loved ones lost.

Media Relations

The presence of an assigned public information officer (PIO) on scene is crucial in order to control what can quickly become a chaotic and adversarial environment between media and rescue workers. MDFR's policy is to dispatch a PIO on any significant event, and because of this the PIO was one of the first units on the scene.

The PIO's initial objective was to immediately gather information from the on-scene staff and set up a regular briefing schedule. A briefing area was established and the first press briefing was conducted within an hour after the crash. This served two purposes: it kept the media away from rescuers and staff who were engaged in the initial operations; and the PIO provided accurate information directly from the site during a time when information is generally not readily available.

Throughout the days that followed, the PIO played a vital role in keeping the community, the country and even the victims' families abreast of rescue activities. MDFR video and still photographers, members of the Public Information Bureau, shot most of the video and still photos of the crash site seen around the world. This enabled MDFR to provide the media with daily footage without interfering in the actual rescue operation. It also assured that the video being distributed did not compromise the privacy of the victims and their families.

Lessons Learned

  • The incident management system works. Applying its principles and assuring that everyone followed procedures permitted a smooth day-to-day operation.
  • Being able to adapt to a hostile environment is essential, as is the ability to improvise solutions. The fire service cannot always dictate that all emergency operations will take place within city limits and last only a few hours.
  • The fire service can manage large-scale, long-term, non-emergency operations in a proactive manner. The overall incident commander for the entire 30-day operation was MDFR Assistant Chief of Operations Carlos J. Castillo. His knowledge as a veteran fireground officer, and his extensive disaster mitigation experience as a member of the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) Incident Support Team, provided instant expertise in structuring an operation as massive as this one.
  • The unified command structure proved to be an integral part of the entire operation's effectiveness. The opportunity to work in unison with a variety of agencies performing many different, crucial tasks was unique and successful.

Luis Fernandez is a lieutenant and nine-year veteran of the Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Department in Florida, currently serving as a public information officer. He is vice chair of the Florida Fire Chiefs Public Information Officer Association.