Detroit’s response to mock plane crash at airport was a disaster


A long-planned mock crash landing at Detroit’s city airport was nothing short of a disaster Tuesday, raising serious questions about the city’s preparedness for a real catastrophe.

The chain of blunders began shortly after 9 a.m., when the alarm at Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport never alerted central dispatch of a “plane crash.”

Eventually realizing that dispatchers were never alerted, an airport official said at 9:14 a.m., “I guess my alarm box at the tower is not working.”

As a mobile aircraft fire simulator was set ablaze, another 18 minutes passed before dispatchers sent firefighters to the east-side airport, an unconscionable amount of time for any emergency, let alone a fiery plane crash.

“We have heavy fire from a fuselage from a plane,” the first arriving firefighters radioed to dispatchers at 9:35 a.m.

Complicating matters, firefighters had trouble communicating because some of them didn’t know how to access the airport channel on their radios.

“I need a different channel for all of my rigs to talk to each other,” the chief said at 9:42 a.m.

Extinguishing the blaze also became a challenge because the city no longer has a functioning airport rig, which had a high-powered foam pumper. Firefighters were forced to use hand-held hoses because the fire engine wasn’t properly equipped to send foam to a ladder truck.

“I don’t have the right connection to give you foam through the tower,” a firefighter from Engine 50 told a chief.

Related: Detroit routinely sends dangerously defective rigs to fires

This is how a high-powered foam pumper works to extinguish plane fires.

At 9:54 p.m., more than 40 minutes after the plane caught fire, the chief asked, “Have you checked the plane for survivors?”

“That’s a negative,” Squad 6 responded.

Although very unlikely in a real scenario, firefighters rescued about 16 “victims” from the burning wreckage more than an hour after the simulated crash.

City officials said lessons were learned.

“The city airport exercise was planned to train and prepare key agencies to respond to an emergency,” said Hilton Kincaid, chief planner for the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “It was the first such exercise conducted at the airport for approximately 15 years, so we fully expected it to reveal opportunities for improvement our first time out. That is the primary purpose with any training exercise.”

Kincaid added: “All agencies involved (Airport, DFD, DPD, DHSEM, Region 2 South Healthcare Coalition, MIOSHA Inspection and EMS) walked away with a better understanding of what is needed from each individual agency and what we need to do as partners to continue to work together to help protect the citizens of Detroit.”

Consultants who studied the Fire Department for nearly a year concluded in March that the city does not adequately train its firefighters.

“When firefighter candidates graduate from the department’s Fire Academy, their continued training is mostly gained by on the job experience from their company officer, which is somewhat discretionary,” according to the report by Tri-Data, experts in emergency preparedness. “Training is an area in which more proactive improvement is needed to improve discipline and procedure.”

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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