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Commercial Airports Have Plans to Handle San Francisco-like Crash

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa- The crash of a large jetliner in San Francisco Saturday is raising the question how would Iowa airports respond to an aircraft disaster?

Managers at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids said Federal Aviation Administration rules actually spell out how quickly crews must be able to get out on a runway to help. But the rules also don't require the amount of equipment and trained rescuers on standby that you'd expect in a big international airport like San Francisco.

For airports the size of Cedar Rapids, the rule is at least one fire-fighting truck must be able to make it to the middle of the farthest runway within three minutes of an emergency and begin fighting an aircraft fire. Cedar Rapids has two specialized trucks capable of spraying both water and fire-suppression foam. One has a capacity of 3,000 gallons of water that can be mixed with foam. The other, older truck can carry 1,500 gallons. Crews say at full spraying power, the larger firefighting truck would empty itself in 90 seconds.

But Kenneth Washburn, commander of the Eastern Iowa Airport Public Safety Department, said by that time the hope would be to have more responders arriving to help.

"Cedar Rapids Fire could be here in four to five minutes with a couple of engines. We also have mutual aid agreements with the volunteer firefighters in departments nearby," Washburn said.

Washburn added that no commercial airport has enough firefighting equipment or personnel to handle a big emergency without outside help. That's why different departments train together. Every three years, commercial airport and different emergency departments conduct a full-scale disaster drill on airport property. Cedar Rapids last conducted a drill in May of 2011. The airport is due for another one next year.

Greg Buelow, public information officer for Cedar Rapids Fire, said his department has several pieces of equipment that can handle the special foam used at the airport to fire aircraft fuel fires. Some of that equipment is put at stations closest to the airport to cut the response time.

But Buelow also said in the first minutes, what's often needed at an airport isn't more equipment but more manpower.

"The airport is fortunate in having good equipment. But they don't have enough staff to deal with a large number of potential victims that might be involved in an airplane incident," Buelow said.

Washburn said the Eastern Iowa Airport probably won't design a practice around the crash landing of a jumbo jet because larger jets don't routinely use the Cedar Rapids airport. The scenarios typically involve something the size of a commuter aircraft. However, the techniques apply whether it's a 100 or 300-passenger plane.

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