Exercise Northern Overrun a safety success

Cairns Airport carried out its biggest-ever full-field emergency exercise in June 2023: ‘Northern Overrun’.

The scenario involved a runway excursion by an international aircraft overshooting the runway, ploughing through a fence and coming to rest in nearby mangroves.

A post-exercise debrief meeting to evaluate its success followed in July. Robert Keegan, Cairns Airport’s Emergency and Operational Resilience Manager, says Cairns was delighted with the participation of airport and regional stakeholders in ‘Northern Overrun’: 217 personnel across 27 departments, organisations, and agencies were involved with the planning, preparation and execution of the exercise.

Developing and executing a successful exercise on this scale involves a lot of advance planning, not to mention the necessary accompanying documentation. North Queensland Airport recognised this, and commissioned Avisure’s Jill Brix and their subcontractor, Craig Shepherd of Shepherd Consulting to assist Keegan and the Airport Emergency Committee to plan, facilitate and evaluate the exercise. 

The July debrief meeting agreed that the exercise met its overall aim of ‘assessing the response to an RPT aircraft crash on the airport in restricted terrain’ in line with the airport’s emergency plan. 

‘Not only did we practise the airport’s emergency plan’, Keegan said, ‘but the exercise was a great opportunity for emergency response training, especially for the Cairns Hospital and Queensland Ambulance personnel, as it was aligned to their training day’. The exercise also provided practical training for nursing and paramedic students at Central Queensland University, who roleplayed casualties, complete with very graphic injury moulage. It also demonstrated the value of having skilled, technically competent, professional emergency responders who work together in the event of such an accident at the airport.

Two teams were critical to the success and review of the exercise: the exercise control team and the exercise evaluation team. The control team managed the flow of the exercise through a master schedule and key documents such as casualty plans and flight documentation, while the evaluation team was on hand completing checklists of each stage of the exercise. These provided the feedback for the post-exercise report. A team of 38 observers from airports, airlines, Defence, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, refuellers, emergency response agencies, consultancies, and the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service watched over proceedings.

Feedback from the review was very positive and highlighted the value of having the police and media centres, which were tested during the exercise to see how they would work. Another positive was the media management which went very well and was a testament to the effort which had gone into training airport personnel such as the COO, who was grilled by an onsite ‘journalist’, a police media representative who stepped into the role.

One of the key strengths of the exercise was the outstanding contribution made by volunteer organisations such as the SES, Red Cross and the Marlin Coast Lions Club. Having the SES fully engaged in the exercise was extremely beneficial to its success, with their activation of the passenger, crew, and relatives and friends reception centres, being trialled for the first time in a long time. The Red Cross ably assisted in the ‘register, find, reunite’ process. The Marlin Coast Lions Club put their newly acquired disaster and community support trailer to good use, providing a delicious lunch for all exercise participants, demonstrating their valuable capability to support emergency responders in an incident or disaster. Individual engagement was also really important and valued. Local Cairns Regional Councillor, Rhonda Coghlan, who is deputy chair of the local Disaster Management Group, participated as an injured passenger, and later described the experience as ‘next level’.

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