Preparing for the worst

Disaster drill puts plane crash, acid spill at Heritage High School

The airways were crackling with doom and disaster on Friday afternoon, June 20. Fire trucks and first responders rolled into Heritage High School to respond to the school that had been hit by a crashing plane and a truck carrying muriatic acid.

Four very important words also sped across police scanners: This is a drill.

Firefighters, law enforcement and first responders didn’t ignore those four words, but they trained as if the words had not been spoken during the multi-agency drill that involved Alcoa Fire Department, Blount County Fire Department, Maryville Fire Department, Townsend Volunteer Fire Department, Blount County Sheriff’s Office, Rural/Metro Ambulance Service and Blount Memorial Hospital.

Two wrecked cars were towed to the entrance of the school to represent two parts of a plane the crashed. Plastic body parts were strewn in different places and a truck was positioned so that it appeared to have wrecked into the school and pinned a plastic figure against a pillar. Non-hazardous smoke spewed from near the truck to symbolize noxious fumes. Inside the school auditorium, volunteers, posing as members of a community group, acted out the part of victims.

Each volunteer had tags that explained their injuries and how they were to act. Some had chest wounds, others were asked to just scream.

While firefighters doused a wrecked red car as if it were on fire, other personnel cut three volunteers posing as plane passengers from the other car. A group of firefighters then went into the auditorium and brought the “injured” participants out to be showered off in portable HazMat showers.

Blount County Fire Department Chief Doug McClanahan was incident commander. Before the drill began, all he told first responders was that there had been a plane crash at Heritage High School. “We want to learn something tonight and have fun because the real thing isn’t fun,” he said before the first alarm went out.

McClanahan’s daughter, Jama Tiller, was a volunteer victim. She said being extricated was an experience she will always remember.

“Being blind, covered up and not knowing what was going on made the random sounds and crashes kind of freak me out,” she said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

Emergency Management/Homeland Security Director Bart Stinnett was impressed with how well all the agencies worked together during the event. The issue evaluators found room for improvement in the communication needed between personnel.

“That’s the big thing you have every drill. In every thing you do, communications is a factor you want to improve upon,” Stinnett said. “We talked about expanding frequencies to add more bands to talk on, more coordination with computer programs so we can communication online and cut down on radio communications.”

Stinnett said what impressed him was the first 20 minutes before a command post was activated. No one had to tell first responders what they needed to do.

“The first responders upon arrival acted instinctively and did not necessarily need to be told step-by-step what needed to be done. It came second nature and that’s a product of training,” he said.

Maryville Fire Chief Ed Mitchell said the drill gives firefighters a chance to critique what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. “In a real situation you wouldn’t have that opportunity because things are happening so fast. In a real situation, we need to do this like it is a habit,” he said.

Alcoa Fire Chief Roger Robinson said anytime personnel from different departments train together, it makes for a better response during a real emergency. “We’ve got great communication between the fire chiefs. We’re all on the same page,” he said.

McClanahan said the drill went extremely well. “Communication is always a problem in any drill or real life scenario. We work on that and strive to be better each time we do that. The cooperation between all the personnel is always good,” he said.

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