Hundreds of rescue personnel responded Wednesday to a simulated aircraft crash landing on one of the runways at the San Antonio International Airport. Nearly 350 first responders participated in the mass casualty exercise.

The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that all commercial airports carry out one of these drills every three years. Russ Handy, the airport’s aviation director, said that members of over 22 city, state, and federal agencies and departments coordinated efforts to address how they would handle a large-scale emergency event.

“The biggest challenge in a situation like this is all of the coordination and communication of all those disparate agencies, because we don’t do that all that often,” Handy said.

Aviation and City staff prepare for a variety of emergency situations. City Manager Sheryl Sculley, San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood, and San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus all observed the drill. McManus said that such emergency simulations help first responders be as prepared as possible, whether it’s for an event triggered by a criminal act or a natural disaster.

“You can never do too much training,” McManus said. “It’s always good to be prepared and even be over-prepared in events like this.”

Wednesday’s simulation featured a realistic scene of catastrophe. Smoke billowed out from canisters underneath an airliner, and dozens of wounded travelers lay bloodied in the large field next to the closed-off runway. The first crews on the scene doused the plane in foam. Later, medical staff arrived to perform triage, transporting the wounded and the dead to a tent meant to represent an on-site hospital .

Planning the event required input from each of the participating entities, which included the San Antonio Police Department, San Antonio Fire Department, officials from the Bexar County medical examiner’s office, the San Antonio International Airport’s operations division, and the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council. These groups contributed what they felt were some of the most important policies and best practices to employ in such an emergency, Handy said.

“What we really try to do is to put together a situation that’s about as serious and challenging as we might be asked to handle,” Handy said. “We’ll simulate [injuries of] various severity that our rescue firefighters [and] our medical professionals will respond to and stabilize to safeguard life.”

While firefighters and medical personnel were the primary responders, officials from several federal agencies, including the FBI and TSA, observed the operations.

The simulation included the participation of National Transportation Safety Board investigators working to determine what may have caused the crash landing, but the event was not structured to resemble a criminal act such as a terrorist attack.

“We are very, very keenly aware of that sort of a threat,” Handy said. “We spend a lot of time with all of our FBI, TSA, and security folks trying to ensure we’re prepared.”

The Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas that took the lives of 58 people is prompting departments, businesses, and event organizers across the city to examine their own security measures.

“We’ve not made any major changes to our local procedures as a result of [Las Vegas] because frankly we had been focused on defending and responding to that sort of a thing for awhile,” Handy said.

San Antonio Department of Aviation Director Russ Handy.

He said that the security agencies working in and around the airport plan for violent threats. To prepare responders, airport officials conduct tabletop exercises, random simulations, and smaller-scale practice techniques.

“We are always analyzing the environment and we will re-shape other exercises, training events, policies, and procedures based on real-time events to include what went on in Las Vegas,” Handy said. “We’re continuously drilling at some level.”

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Jeffrey Sullivan

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.