Sarasota-Bradenton Airport Performs Emergency Exercise in View of Travelers

It probably wasn't the best time for skittish fliers to come in for a landing at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

A full-scale passenger aircraft disaster response exercise was carried out Wednesday morning, well within the sight of Delta and AirTran flights that were coming and going. But if travelers saw the simulated crash scene, they also saw more than 300 people from public safety agencies in Manatee and Sarasota counties demonstrating their ability to work together during an emergency response.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires that the test be done once every three years. In off years, "table top" exercises are conducted, according to Mark Stuckey, the airport's operations and projects administrator.

This year, the personnel, vehicles and bodies were on pavement, not paper.

A design team created the scenario: a Boeing 737, with its cabin filled with smoke, comes down hard and short of the runway, skidding along the ground with its midsection on fire.

In reality, a Coast Guard helicopter, not a plane, was used in the exercise. The 65 "passengers" and five "crew members" were chosen from 90 of the volunteers who showed up to help.

By the time the "victims" were laid out on the tarmac, however, they looked convincing. Some were smeared with fake blood, some had prosthetics that simulated missing limbs, and some had "shrapnel" embedded in their bodies. They were evaluated by teams of professionals from both counties' EMS services, and some were taken to one of the six participating area hospitals, including Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.

"We got 10 patients," said Jean Lucas, the hospital's director of critical care. "It allowed us the opportunity to test our lab, radiology and ER capabilities."

This was the first airport disaster drill for the hospital, which has been open less than a year. But it wasn't its first emergency drill, Lucas said, and certainly not its last.

"Every time you do a drill, you find areas where you can improve your response," she said. "We are a new hospital, and any opportunity to test the services we have is good for us. It's nice to see when things work well."