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Editorial: Plane crash drill keeps emergency crews sharp

The flurry of activity that took place at and near the Alexandria Airport Sunday and Monday demonstrated just how committed Douglas County Emergency Management personnel are.

They practiced responding to a crisis they hope they’ll never see: a jet airplane crash with multiple deaths and injuries, quickly followed by a truck crash involving hazardous materials.

The realism that went into the drill was impressive: a realistic jet fuselage, flames, smoke, volunteers playing the roles of victims, crash dummies and more.

Those who responded weren’t lackadaisical or joking around. They took the drill seriously. They wanted to learn from each other and for themselves. They listened to the commands given by those in charge and adapted to the twists that were thrown their way.

All the training that our local emergency response crews go through is easy to overlook. We just kind of expect them to be there, to show up no matter what time of the day or night, to extinguish the fire, rescue the trapped, calm the chaos. But being prepared for those situations isn’t something that can be put on auto-pilot. It takes hard work, sacrifice and commitment to train on a regular basis. Many of them train every week, and every once in awhile, they go even deeper, putting themselves through the kind of extraordinary circumstances they went through earlier this week.

Some may think the possibility of a plane crash in Alexandria is so remote that it’s not worth preparing for. But is it? At the Alexandria airport, a jet either lands or takes off 300 times a year. That’s nearly one per day. Having trained personnel who have put themselves through a worst-case scenario or two could someday save a life.

From a firefighting perspective, there’s a big difference between responding to a structure fire and battling through the smoke and flames of a plane crash. For starters, the heat is much more intense, according to Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow. Structure fires burn at about 800 to 1,000 degrees while an aircraft fuel fire burns near 2,000 degrees.

On Sunday, the day before the communitywide drill took place, firefighters from throughout the area got a better idea of those differences when they trained on a jet simulator, working just a few feet away from a wall of propane-fed flames to enter a fuselage and rescue trapped “victims.”

Those who may be wondering about the tax expense of such specialized training can ease their minds. The cost of the jet prop was covered by a Department of Homeland Security grant.

Firefighters from Alexandria, Forada and Osakis worked seamlessly together at the staged disaster scenes. The effort also involved a host of other key emergency response personnel, including first responders, Alexandria Police Department, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, North Ambulance, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Posse and the Douglas County Hospital.

Others added to the depth of the training as well: The Alexandria Fire Department Explorers (10th and 11th grade students interested in pursuing firefighting) and law enforcement students from the Alexandria Technical and Community College played the roles of “victims” and were taken to triage areas for medical attention. Cenex in Alexandria also played a part, donating propane for both days of training.

Those involved in the drill will be going over, point by point, how they responded to the staged events. They plan to have a table-top discussion on what was handled well and what could use improvement.

That continuing effort to keep their emergency response skills sharp should never be taken for granted. We’re all safer because of it.