What would you do if you arrived at the scene of a plane crash? Firefighters, EMTs and others are learning the ropes from the FAA.
The FAA is reaching out to communities small and large across the United States to train their EMTs, firefighters, and other first responders on what to be aware of when responding to aircraft accidents on and off airports. Since 2014, approximately 5,000 first responders from a wide range of fields have attended the courses virtually and in-person, including firefighters, EMTs, police officers, airport managers, nurses, doctors and local pilots.
Jay Flowers, National FAA Aviation Safety Team (FAASTeam) aviation safety inspector and founder of the “Aircraft Accidents for First Responders” outreach program, kickstarted the project from a professional and personal standpoint — prior to joining the FAA as an aviation safety inspector, he was an air medical pilot and an EMT based out of Bismarck, ND, and his father a lieutenant for the Bismarck City Fire Department. After his father asked him for instructions to teach his staff about responding to aircraft crashes, Flowers recognized the need for better training.
“There was very little in the FAA’s repository that had anything to do with EMS crews, firefighters, law enforcement and ambulance drivers,” Flowers recalled.
He embraced the challenge and developed a comprehensive first responder program, which he started presenting while with the Fargo Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) in 2011. Since then he estimates he has trained more than 1,500 of North Dakota’s 5,000 first responders, often volunteering his own time in this educational effort.
Other FAASTeam program managers started submitting materials to improve the course and the format. “They came up with some fantastic ideas and videos,” said Flowers. The four-hour course features a classroom portion and a hands-on portion.
One of the keys to attracting so many participants is creating a community environment around the event. FAASTeam program managers enlist local pilots, aviation organizations and companies, and veterans’ and social clubs to participate in and/or host a meeting, including local experts who have responded to accidents who are brought in to speak.
“You have to get that buy-in from the public, and when you do, the doors open up,” said Flowers. For instance, the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association built and sponsored a mock-up of a crop duster to use in a crash simulation and extrication. The Fargo FSDO FAASTeam uses this simulator to further educate EMS crews across the state.
Flowers’ enthusiasm is a common trait among other FAASTeam members. “I’ve spent my life and career in aviation and emergency medicine,” said Melanie Folcik Barillaro, a principal operations inspector at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, CT. “When my FAASTeam program manager asked for me to assist in this program and introduced me to Jay Flowers’ program, I couldn’t believe it! Jay and I shared the exact same vision in getting this vital information out to the public. From that moment, this program became a passion.”
Folcik Barillaro and her colleague, Michael Edreich, have led several online training sessions that drew viewers from across the country and the world, including firefighters from Antarctica and South Africa.
Most recently, the Bradley FAASTeam held its first in-person responder training at Groton (CT) Airport. “This is the first time that we ever did something of this scale,” said Folcik Barillaro. More than 250 participants passed through eight training stations and viewed 20 aircraft.
The session covered a variety of scenarios that first responders might encounter, including leaking fluids, live engine shut downs, fire and smoke, and sharp-edged debris. Responders were instructed about how to enter and preserve an accident scene, PPE, medical injuries unique to pilots, and chemical hazards to watch for.
“We’re reaching deeper into the community,” said Folcik Barillaro. “It is so important educating the general public, especially first responders who aren’t pilots and who have their hands in that mess. Being a pilot myself, I want to know there are more people out there who can rescue me.”
“It gives us the opportunity to interact with local first responders,” said Black. “These are the folks our inspectors and investigators deal with when we’re on the accident scene,” said Jamie Black, an aviation safety inspector and FAASTeam program manager who tailors his session to address issues common to his area, such as hazardous fertilizers and chemicals that can be found in crop dusters.
David Slack, the training captain of the Bryant Fire Department, said his team benefited from information on newer safety features, such as rocket-fired parachutes and airbag seatbelts. “It was good to know ahead of time. Now [my staff] know what to look for,” he added.
Slack said he would recommend first responder training to any fire department, especially if they’re near an airport. “I would recommend getting as many people as they could through it.”
Brandon Guillot has volunteered with the Little Rock FAASTeam for years. As director of Saline County Emergency Management/911 Communications, he has a vested interest in aviation safety matters, often participating in first responder training sessions.
“The biggest lesson I have learned is trying to make parallels with what these guys see every day and converting that to the aviation world,” he said. “The less they need to stop and recalculate [at an accident scene], the better.”
“We are so into offering more,” said Folcik Barillaro. “I would do this as my full-time job.”