Helicopters from the National Guard and the S.C. National Guard hovered overhead Saturday as an area off Bucksport Road was sectioned off for local, state and federal emergency agencies to participate in a mock airplane crash, a project that was three years in the making.
Operation Coastal Response 2014 was designed to challenge agencies at the county, state and federal levels in the event of a mass-casualty incident, which, in this case, was a plane crash. Drills were also practiced at Sandy Island and the Wacca Wache Marina in Georgetown County Saturday.
Brian VanAernem, spokesman for Horry County Fire Rescue, said the mock event was a good way for agencies to work together in a non-emergency setting.
“This is a good way to bring us together to practice our inter-agency communications,” VanAernem said. “Whenever you have these kind of drills, communication is what you’re going to have hiccups in, especially when you’re talking multiple agencies.”
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Saturday’s organized chaos included a trailer-turned-fuselage and dozens of plastic inflatable dummies strewn across a field that acted as deceased passengers of the plane. “Survivors” of the fake crash were covered in blankets as they were escorted from the crash scene to nearby buses. Words like “contaminated” and “quarantined” were used as if Saturday’s drill was a real catastrophe. The helicopters were used to signify how survivors would be transported to area hospitals.
Much like the March 2013 Windsor Green fire, where 26 condominiums were destroyed, communication and handling the media were initial challenges the agencies faced Saturday.
“That’s the things we want,” VanAernem said. “We want those hiccups to happen here so when we have a real live incident, that stuff is not going to be done. We’ve worked it out. We worked out the issues, so we’re able to fix them prior to.”
“Windsor Green sparked a bunch of stuff, especially on the initial calls and the initial response.”
Randy Webster, director of Horry County Emergency Management, said the county used its after-action report on the Windsor Green fire to determine areas to focus on.
“We used some of that to drive some of our goals and objectives [Saturday] because there’s been a lot of work done to meet those, and from what I’ve seen today, we’ve exceeded that expectation as well,” Webster said.
He said Saturday’s training will have a pretty extensive after-action report itself.
“There’s a point where we’ll all come back together with everybody involved and we’ll create the after action report and improvement plan much like the Windsor Green fire did,” Webster said. “It may take six or eight months to get it done. This’ll be a big, big deal with so many players involved and so many layers of government involved. It takes time.”
“I’m certain, when you do something like this, we’ll find things we did well and we’ll find things we could do better, which is why we do this, to validate response plans we have in place and make changes in a simulation environment instead of when it really happens.”
Lt. Robert Kegler, spokesman for the Horry County Police, said he liked the location of the drill because of its proximity to agencies like Georgetown County, who Horry County sometimes works with on regular calls.
“It gives us a great opportunity to work with other agencies,” Kegler said. “We work side-by-side every day, especially down in Murrells Inlet and the Bucksport area, but we’re not always in contact with each other.”
An influx of public safety and military vehicles as well as personnel in military gear helped guard the scene and had a presence around Bucksport both Friday and Saturday. Webster said the county had public meetings, sent out mailers and a mass text to residents in the Bucksport area so the training wouldn’t alarm local residents.
“The support that they’ve shown us has been tremendous,” Webster said. “Our hat’s off to them.”