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Airport's Tabletop Exercise Readies First Responders for a Real Emergency

Springfield-Branson National Airport's Tabletop Exercise (Credit: Michele Skalicky)

The scenario was this:  An American Airlines jet with 153 souls onboard, headed from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Benito Juarez, Mexico, experiences right engine failure and needs to land in Springfield in 20 minutes.  It was part of an exercise conducted at the Springfield-Branson National Airport.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky reports.

In a meeting room inside the Springfield-Branson National Airport is a large table.  On it sits a replica of the airport and its runways along with miniature airplanes, helicopters, fire trucks and other things.  Kent Boyd is the airport’s spokesman.

"We're having what I suppose you could call war games, and what I mean by that is the war is a crashed airplane and the fire that would probably happen afterwards and trying to rescue all the people onboard," he said.

The tabletop exercise is designed to prepare first responders for a real emergency.  Representatives from various organizations that might respond to an airport disaster took part, including Mercy, CoxHealth, the Willard Fire Department, the Springfield Fire Department, Ozarks Emergency Management, the American Red Cross and others.

Ironically, the same week the tabletop exercise was planned, the airport experienced a real emergency.

"On Monday we had a situation where a plane had to return to the airport because the flaps were stuck, and that's not a good thing.  They wanted to get back on the ground as soon as possible, and there were 50 people on that plane.  But because we've had meetings like this, we have a pretty good idea of what we would do and what we do in those situations, and so when something like that happens like what happened on Monday, the training that we have here sort of kicks in, and things go a lot more smoothly," he said.

Boyd says the airport has four or five serious incidents each year, but a crash has never occurred there.  In 1955, an American Airlines flight trying to reach Springfield in a thunderstorm, crashed in a pasture two miles north of the airport.  Twelve people were killed and 23 injured.

The FAA requires airports to conduct tabletop exercises once each year.  Every three years, a full-scale exercise is held during which a fake airplane is set on fire, an alarm is sounded and emergency personnel get to the airport as quickly as possible and pretend like it’s a real disaster.

Boyd says one of the main benefits of these exercises is to improve communications so response to a real disaster would go as smoothly as possible.

For KSMU News, I’m Michele Skalicky.