If you were trying to get to Japonski Island on Monday night, you probably found the bridge closed by police.
It was part of a community-wide disaster drill. The exercise involved emergency responders, doctors, nurses, airport and airline officials, the Coast Guard, and even students from Mt. Edgecumbe High School.
Sitka Fire Chief Dave Miller hops in his red SUV outside the Sitka Fire Hall and starts rolling toward the airport. He’s towing the department’s mass casualty trailer. In this scenario, a passenger jet has crashed during takeoff from Sitka’s runway, which is surrounded by water.
“Can you give me an approximate of how many victims we have in the water and on land?” Miller asks into his radio.
The response comes back: “I’m assuming it’s a 737-400, so we can have a crew of five and up to 140 passengers…”
The official count ends up being 85 victims. About half of those are made of foam, and floating in the water around the airport. The other half are played by Mt. Edgecumbe High School students. They are lying all over a field between the airport’s runway and taxiway. Miller pulls up on the scene.
“If you can walk, move this way,” Miller shouts. “If you’re walking, move this way.”
Some of them begin heading toward the fire trucks and ambulances. Others are on the ground, not moving. Students have been assigned roles and some have been asked to play victims with serious, specific injuries. Firefighters are carrying people out on stretchers. EMTs are crouched around some students while other pretend victims sit in the field looking dazed and calling out for help.
“OK, I want you to stay calm and take nice, deep breaths, all right?” EMT Elena Gustafson says to one of the mock victims.
She’s putting color-coded tags on the “injured” people. Green means the patient can walk. Yellow is someone who is injured and needs help to get around. Red is someone who needs immediate assistance. And a black tag means the victim has died.
Terry Blake, a physician assistant at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital and a member of the Sitka Assembly, is tending to one of the students, who has been made up to look scarred and bloody.
“I need a red high-priority tag on this one,” he shouts to someone nearby.
The victim groans and gasps as Blake asks him questions, and before long, he’s loaded onto a stretcher and carried to a red tarp – to match his tag – where he’s tended to until an ambulance is available to take him to the hospital.
Back at the fire hall, Chief Miller explains that handling a disaster here is a lot different than in larger communities.
“If you watch on TV, they’ll have 100, 150 ambulances show up to start hauling patients,” he says. “We have three.”
So, Miller says, they just have to make do. And because Sitka is on an island it can’t call on other fire departments for assistance. But they certainly have help. The police, the state troopers, the Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, Alaska Airlines, Sitka Community Hospital, SEARHC, Allen Marine, and more all took part in the drill.
At one point, Miller saw a bunch of fishing boats heading toward the runway and got on his radio to remind anyone listening that this was a drill.
Kelly Boddy is with the Alaska Department of Transportation, which oversees the airport.
“Until you find out who’s willing to play in a mock drill like this, you don’t know who you can count on during the real thing,” Boddy said. “Having this many people participate in a mock drill, you know you’re going to have twice as many in the real thing. That’s always a good feeling.”
She says these drills are required every three years.
“I don’t think you ever really feel prepared for anything like this, but it definitely helps in taking the next step,” she said. “We went from our last triennial drill of doing a water rescue only to this year doing a land-and-water rescue. Now it’s coming together so that we’re a little more prepared, because he likelihood is that’s what we’re going to have – a land and water drill.”
There were a few hiccups during the drill. At one point, a fire engine left to respond to an actual fire alarm back in town (everything was fine). And there were a few chuckles too.
But for many involved, the drill was sobering, too. Sitka is small enough that you almost always run into people you know at the airport, or even at the Sitka gate in Seattle. Any given flight likely has friends and family members aboard.
Fire Chief Miller says if something actually happens, it will be very difficult for the community, and that he hopes his staff never, ever has to use what they’ve learned here today. But, he’s glad they’re ready.