Vol. 79, No. 2Featured submission

Two firefighters treat injured person near airplane crash.

Getting real

Exercise takes disaster response to next level

Two firefighters participate in a hands-on joint training exercise in Lethbridge, Alta., to better prepare for a mass disaster. Credit: RCMP


Recent disasters in Canada and around the world have shown that all first responder agencies need to be properly trained and equipped to handle them. A question many emergency organizations ask themselves is, "are we ready to respond to this type of call in our community?"

Canada is fortunate to have the vast majority of its police, fire and ambulance services trained to very high standards. As recently seen in Alberta with the Fort McMurray fires, a natural mass disaster will put great pressure and strain on any organization assigned to protect its citizens.

Other non-natural disasters, such as an airplane crash with multiple fatalities, despite their rarity, will also challenge local authorities. One aspect of a mass disaster that's often overlooked is the recovery of the victims. Once the initial response is completed, police forensic teams are deployed to recover and identify the human remains, and to record any criminal evidence that may be present.

Victim recovery

Dealing with deceased individuals is a common occurrence within the forensic identification community. However, dealing with multiple fatal casualties from a single incident makes this far more challenging. Specific training for Canadian forensic identification officers comprises a two-week classroom course in Ottawa at the Canadian Police College (CPC), but doesn't include hands-on training. Last summer, an actual training workshop was created to fill this gap.

Major disasters such as the 2004 South Asian tsunami, the 2010 Haitian earthquake and more recently the 2011 First Air Boeing 737 crash in the Canadian Arctic have shown the value of enhancing preparation, training and planning for police forensic teams here in Canada.

Specialized equipment is one factor to consider. Having a large motorized command-post vehicle may be suitable in an urban environment but not in a remote location with forested or mountainous terrain. As seen in the past, aircraft crash sites are often situated in challenging settings. Having access to large tents to act as an on-site command post, generators and other portable equipment may be worth having on inventory for agencies servicing non-urban areas.

The presence of hazards such as airborne carbon and fibreglass particles from the burnt fuselage of a newer model aircraft is one of the most dangerous threats found at crash scenes. Without access to the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), police responders and investigators' health and safety can be seriously affected from such exposure.

Forensic identification personnel also require specific training to deal with an incident of this type. From the scene examination to the management of the recovered remains, procedures need to be in place and practised prior to an actual incident.

Several years ago, INTERPOL recognized that the co-ordination and procedures of handling fatalities following a mass disaster greatly varied among member countries. In an attempt to provide a more universal, uniform response, new Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) policies and procedures were created.

To increase awareness of those procedures and policies among Canadian police, coroner and medical examiner agencies, the Southern Alberta Disaster Exercise (SADEX) was held in June 2016. The exercise provided a realistic, hands-on training opportunity for forensic and traffic collision reconstructionist officers to process a simulated disaster scene involving multiple casualties.

Police agencies from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario participated in the event. The Canadian Armed Forces also sent a team of forensic odontologists, who examine dental evidence, so their members could learn and share recommended practices in a mass disaster. As with any fatality, the medical examiner (and coroner in some provinces) is always involved in a disaster response, and they also participated at SADEX16.

Making the exercise as realistic as possible is key to ensuring that lessons of higher value are learned for the participants and organizers. To meet this goal, the organizers hired a private emergency preparedness company to supply prosthetics, props and guidance. Simulated bleeding cuts, burn injuries and protruding broken bones were placed on the actors playing the survivors to provide realism and increase the medical treatment challenge facing first responders.

As dismemberment is occasionally encountered in such incidents, an actor with an actual amputated leg was brought in to be among the victims. The actor wore a special prosthetic to mimic a violent injury.

An infant mannequin equipped with wireless remote control to activate the mechanical arms and pre-recorded crying noises was placed inside one of the two cars at the scene. Animal intestines and a bovine brain were added to some of the mannequins at the scene to expose first responders to realistic sights. Additional hazard factors included smoke from burning hay inside metal drums positioned around the crash site and the use of tactical flash bangs to simulate loud explosions.

The scenario

The first part of the exercise involved a commuter plane from Calgary experiencing engine problems while approaching Lethbridge. The plane never reached the airport and ended up crashing and colliding with an occupied transit bus and two private vehicles on a nearby highway. The crash resulted in the death of eight civilians (played by fully dressed mannequins) and 15 injured individuals (played by Victim Services Unit volunteers). A witness made a 911 call to the local emergency services resulting in firefighters and EMS personnel responding to the crash site.

The city's Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was activated to co-ordinate the response. Once the injured individuals were rescued and treated by fire and EMS staff, they were transported to the emergency room of the hospital via ambulances so that local medical authorities could test their own response in a mass casualty incident.

Once the 15 injured individuals were evacuated, the second part of the exercise — the recovery of the deceased victims — began. A team of forensic personnel comprised of police, military and medical examiner investigators were dispatched to the site to process and record the scene with ground and air photography, video and surveying.

The deceased (mannequins) were then removed and taken to a temporary morgue inside the RCMP inflatable shelters erected at the site to perform simulated field autopsies. Forensic odontologists from the Canadian Armed Forces also joined the police forensic teams, gained awareness for their potential role in this civilian context and demonstrated their operational capabilities if deployed in a DVI joint operation.

During the first day, and prior to processing the site, forensic officers and senior management observers gathered inside a large tent where they were presented with a slide show about past Canadian disasters and an outline of the procedures to follow. Topics included proper PPE, required equipment and personnel, the disaster victim recovery booklet, shift management tips and how to use INTERPOL's post mortem forms. Once completed, the candidates were divided into four teams, each composed of four forensic officers and one traffic collision reconstructionist. They were then sent out to the crash scene with instructions to process each vehicle location before moving to the next one.

On day two, the group searched the site on foot to log, record and recover any additional evidence such as personal effects (luggage and other items) left behind at the crash scene.

Improving response

The exercise allowed multiple police and emergency agencies to respond and successfully work together in the aftermath of a simulated plane crash. The use of an actual decommissioned 19-passenger airplane fuselage, a crushed transit bus, two cars and the associated debris field helped make the disaster site look authentic. The presence of actors displaying very realistic trauma injuries also enhanced the realism, allowing the responders to appreciate the stress associated with such working conditions.

Fire departments and EMS personnel later commented that the exercise would better prepare them for what to expect when responding to a real incident with multiple casualties. The forensic officers involved also indicated that they felt better prepared after this training session.

Some of the participating agencies have since taken steps to increase their operational capabilities by acquiring new PPE and a better awareness of scene and casualty management procedures. Areas requiring improvement in the operational response by the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), police, fire department, EMS and hospital agencies were identified during a post-incident general meeting and will help improve capability in future similar incidents.

Cpl. Jack Neri is an RCMP forensic identification officer in Alberta. He has been deployed to numerous major disasters including the First Air Boeing 737 crash in the Canadian Arctic in 2011.

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