Aircraft crash presents unique challenge for first responders

Sarah Fearing
Contact Reportersfearing@tidewaterreview.com

MATTAPONI— A plane crashes into a rural marsh on a rainy, foggy night. First responders must be aware of the dangers they face and coordinate to help find the plane and its pilot.

While plane crashes are an infrequent occurrence in Tidewater, first responders must know how to handle these situations when they do happen.

In the case of the Nov. 30 crash, personnel from the state police, Lower King & Queen County Volunteer Fire Rescue and two airport LifeEvac employees responded to the scene near the Middle Peninsula Regional Airport.

In the days following the crash, firefighters and emergency responders discussed the types of unique training they receive to help them respond to aircraft-related calls.

King & Queen fire personnel have taken courses on airport firefighting in recent years, although Emergency Services Coordinator Greg Hunter said he was unsure of the exact date of the most recent training.

The courses are offered through the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, which holds the training at local airports close to the fire departments, Hunter said.

For King & Queen County first responders, those classes are held at the Middle Peninsula Regional Airport.

State fire programs trainers use a computer controlled simulator that enables fire department personnel to train at their facility with their equipment and mutual aid departments, according to the agency's website.

LifeEvac member Clinton Schott said LifeEvac flight nurses and flight paramedics have specific trainings for mass-casualties, but not specific to airplane crashes. Other trainings cover flight-specific knowledge such as how altitude affects patients.

LifeEvac provides full service emergency medical air transportation and is based at the Middle Peninsula Regional Airport and in Petersburg. LifeEvac services are available all hours of the day, every day of the year, Schott said.

West Point Fire Chief Joe Bartos said a major concerns for firefighters is the type of fuel onboard downed aircraft.

"Other than the type of fuel, there isn't much that's different from a fire at a car crash," Bartos said.

A plane crash fire is considered a class B fire because of the type of fuel - typically gas, diesel and kerosene, the chief said. The fires are fought using aqueous film forming foam, which blankets the fire and smothers it.

Large airports are required to have their own fire departments available to respond to large aircraft fires and large-scale incidents, Bartos said.

"We can send our members to the trainings, but we usually don't because a small plane crash fire is similar to a vehicle fire," Bartos said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and General Aviation Manufacturers Association have developed training safety protocol training for police and fire personnel responding to plane crashes.

The online courses cover topics such as fire hazards unique to aircraft accidents, protocol for managing accident scenes and investigation-related requirements.

Even though the courses were developed for firefighters, medical service personnel and police, they are available to anyone who may come across an aircraft accident, according to the FAA's website.

Fearing can be reached by phone at (804) 885-0042.

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