Airshow provided training opportunity for emergency planners

While thousands are enjoying the flying acts and static displays at the Flight Over the Falls airshow, others were standing by to handle the small stuff like lost credit cards and cuts and bruises but they’re also ready in case of any major emergency.

At an airshow, that major event could be a downed aircraft, a vehicle ramming through the crowd or something like a rapidly spreading illness.

Other concerns involved an onslaught of traffic crashes and injuries related to the influx of traffic going to and from the airport.

But those disaster scenarios have been planned for and rehearsed to some degree in tabletop exercises by emergency planners, first responders, medical professionals and other officials.

Planning for airshows typically starts a year before the show and emergency response planning usually starts at least six months before the event, according to officials.

During the airshow, an additional engine crew was on shift from Great Falls Fire Rescue and additional Great Falls Police Department officers were also on duty and partnering with military security forces to provide a presence at the event.

There were no major incidents during the airshow. GFPD responded to 334 calls for service over the weekend, including three injury vehicle crashes, 22 suspicious persons, 18 larcenies and 31 citizen assists. Fourteen people were arrested, including one DUI. That brought GFPD’s calls for service to 24,818 for the year, as of Monday.

Officials also used the event as a training opportunity to standup the joint Emergency Operations Center in a facility across the street from the 120th Airlift Wing. The facility also houses the city-county 911 dispatch center.

The EOC was created a few years ago when the 911 center moved to the new facility and has been stood up a few times to handle incidents like last summer’s Vinyard fire.

But the airshow provides an opportunity to involve city and county officials, medical representatives from Benefis Health System and Great Falls Clinic, as well as personnel from the 120th and Malmstrom Air Force Base to stand up a unified command and practice their procedures using the standard procedures under the Federal Emergency Management Agency system.

“We’re putting this together as if this was a real emergency or disaster,” said Dave Nordel, the emergency manager for the City of Great Falls.

Nordel said the state was notified that the EOC was standing up, as would be the process in a real emergency scenario. They also had city department heads in for a practice run during the practice show on Friday.

No one from the county participated at the EOC during the airshow. The county emergency manager retired at the end of June and the position has not yet been filled, though the job is no longer posted on the county website.

Lt. Col. Michael Epper was serving as the EOC director during the airshow. At Malmstrom, he’s commander of the 341st Force Support Squadron.

The EOC director coordinates all of the other roles in the center and provides oversight.

Some of the EOC roles require specific training. Epper attended a specialized training program at Maxwell AFB in Alabama.

All of the involved agencies have their own roles, resources and systems, but they all use FEMA’s incident command system.

“It’s the glue that allows us to come together and do the same mission,” Epper said of ICS.

Tech. Sgt. Joshua McDowell, emergency manager for the Civil Engineering squadron at Malmstrom, so he’s working on emergency planning daily but said it’s good to exercise the interoperability with other agencies.

At the EOC, he can fill several roles since he has specific training and said it’s best to do this kind of training and work out kinks before any real emergency.

“These guys do this all the time, so it’s good when we get to do this and learn new things from them,” said Capt. Jeff Newton with GFPD. “We get better every time.”

Medical personnel were also exercising their plans at the airshow site.

Maj. Ryan Seymour of the 341st Medical Group said they had two objectives during the event. One was handling any medical issues that happened during the event like dehydration, bumps and bruises. Seymour served as assistant medical director for the airshow and is the family health clinic flight commander at Malmstrom.

All of the Malmstrom medics are training in mass casualty response and the event gave them a chance to go through their checklists and refresh their plans. Like those at the EOC, it was also a chance for medical personnel to coordinate plans with their counterparts at the 120th, Benefis and GFC.