A mock ‘plane crash’ at Nanaimo Airport this week triggered a rapid response from the airport’s rescue and firefighting crews, Cranberry and North Cedar volunteer fire departments, Ladysmith RCMP and B.C. Ambulance Service paramedics.
But for this incident, observers from Transport Canada, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Victoria, Canadian Armed Forces Joint Task Force Pacific and the B.C. Office of the Fire Commission and Nanaimo Fire Rescue also happened to be on hand to observe the first live training exercise hosted at Nanaimo Airport since such exercises were halted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The exercise scenario started out as a bad day for passengers and crew – 55 souls in all – aboard an Acme Airlines plane that had just lifted off the runway when it suddenly banked to the left, fell hard back onto the runway, snapped its left landing gear, skidded to a stop at the north end of the taxi way and caught fire.
Emergency personnel scrambled to the scene where five passengers had ‘died,’ eight others were severely injured, and dazed passengers were spilling out of the aircraft. Onboard, a mother refused to leave her injured child and a woman refused to leave behind her husband who lost his life in the crash. Responders also had to deal with a dog found injured in the plane’s cargo hold and one passenger who was fighting to get back into the plane to grab his carry-on bag.
Adding to the drama, the flight crew aboard the aircraft reported it might have been an explosive device that brought down the plane, triggering an even greater response from the RCMP. Another complication was that the aircraft was still leaking fuel.
Back in the airport terminal, Nanaimo Airport and airline staff dealt with distraught friends and relatives of the passengers who were trying to find out what had happened and the fate of their loved ones.
Acme Airlines doesn’t exist, the dead and wounded were all volunteers, the stricken aircraft was a bus provided by Regional District of Nanaimo Transit and no animals were harmed in the exercise. The exercise was designed to test emergency services response and inter-agency co-ordination according to safety standards.
“The exercise is designed on two regulatory requirements from Transport Canada,” said Ron Lambert, former chief of Nanaimo Fire Rescue, now a private consultant who designed the exercise scenario. “One is the aviation side, which deals with the crash, fire, rescue, and the other is security and because of COVID we combined both together because of the time delay and the requirement to put these in place.”
Live emergency response exercises must be practised once every four years and tabletop exercises must be practised every year in between. The last live exercise at Nanaimo Airport before this week was in 2016.
“Emergency services is super important, safety is No. 1 around here, but for two and a half years we haven’t really been able to get all these people together,” said Dave Devana, Nanaimo Airport president and CEO. “So, now we’ve got all the first responders … Everybody showed up and gave us an opportunity to practise something that we hope doesn’t happen around here, but we need to be ready for it.”
Devana said he thought the exercise went “pretty well,” but any issues encountered would come up in the exercise debriefing.
“There’s going to be things for us to learn,” he said. “We’re going to have a debrief here and see what we can improve in our process if something like this ever does happen at the airport.”
Garry Hein, deputy chief with Cranberry Volunteer Fire Rescue, said there is always something to be learned from live exercises.
“We’re always put in different positions, different challenges … similar to any emergency scene, it’s a dynamic situation, you prepare for everything and work through the scenario,” Hein said. “Every year we do a different scenario, whether it’s a bomb threat, fire threat … This one involved a bomb, so … more involved with the RCMP, so that was the big change from the last few scenarios.”
B.C. Emergency Health Services practise inter-agency communication at large-scale exercises, said Alex Mattes, B.C. Ambulance Service regional unit chief.
“For us it’s an exercise in communication – inter-agency communication and communication with our own people – and triaging and transportation of mass amounts of people…” he said. “[It’s about] working out how you’re going to work all this with very limited resources at the time. As we call resources in it gets easier and easier, but it’s a matter of getting that count and making sure everything’s working out properly for us.”
Lt-Col. David Proctor was one of three members with Joint Task Force Pacific who came to Nanaimo Airport from Victoria as military observers.
“Later on we’ll be providing a briefing on Canadian Forces plans for major aircraft disaster, how that plan would roll out and how many of the emergency services were dove-tailed into that plan,” he said.
One final task of the exercise for airport and airline staff was a “friends and relatives reunion” at the Nanaimo Flying Club headquarters with passengers of the ill-fated Acme Airlines flight. The dozens of volunteers, members of attending agencies and airport staff were rewarded with a barbecue before first responders and airport staff went into an afternoon debriefing to review the exercise.