A mass casualty drill Wednesday turned into a minor disaster because firetrucks and ambulances couldn't reach "injured" survivors of a mock plane crash.
American Medical Response ambulances and Colorado Springs firefighters didn't reach the "crash" scene on Peterson Air Force Base until an hour after the drill began.
Doug McIntyre, a paramedic and disaster coordinator for AMR, said the delay was due to an escort's failing to accom- pany the five ambulances and firefighters taking part in the drill through a security gate.
The main problem, said Cindy Litteral, Peterson's deputy fire chief, was miscommunication.
"I've been a firefighter for 28 years, and there's always communication problems for anything of that magnitude, and we'll be looking at little things for growth and changes," she said.
"The escort only let one engine company in, and the others got left behind."
The Federal Aviation Administration requires a mass casualty drill at airports every three years.
Wednesday's exercise at Peterson, the home of military disaster response coordinator for North America, Northern Command, simulated a crash of a charter plane with 71 passengers, with volunteers acting as victims awaiting medical help.
Volunteers were sprayed with blood and given moulage of various injuries, including shrapnel wounds and hands hanging by skin and veins. Blood pressure, heart rate and breaths per minute was also labeled on each person's wrist.
A liquid pouring from the plane wing simulated jet fuel to make the drill as realistic as possible.
Typically, McIntyre said, AMR would have been on the scene of a crash in less than eight minutes, but they waited at a gate for 20 to 30 minutes.
"Having to sit and wait, you have a whole lot of type-A personalities used to being on the scene, and it throws you off a little bit," McIntyre said.
John McGinley, assistant director of operations and maintenance at Colorado Springs Airport, which shares runways with Peterson, said part of the delay in getting ambulances to the site was due to having the drill by an active airfield and the need for trucks to drive along perimeter roads.
"In an actual event we wouldn't be escorting on vehicle service roads at 15 mph speed limits. We'd be cutting across the airfield," McGinley said.
Litteral, whose crews cover the airport and were the first to surround the plane during the drill, said a real emergency would have been handled differently, especially at the gate.
In the event of an actual emergency, Litteral said, there would have been 40 to 50 Air Force medical technicians at the crash site, and he would have personally seen that responders made it to the site.
Despite miscommunications between the six military and civilian agencies involved, organizers termed the drill a success that provided lessons for avoiding future mistakes and working together.
The 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the recent deaths of nine firefighters in South Carolina have taught emergency responders they can't train enough for the real thing, McIntyre said.
"We've been so lucky that we realize that if we don't train, we'll be the unlucky ones," McIntyre said.