A report out today is critical of the handling of the Lynchburg Regional Airshow.
Campbell Co., VA - A new report describes the chaos at this year's Lynchburg Air show as a "mass casualty incident". Officials from Campbell County and Lynchburg outlined point by point what went wrong. It's a critical report. At one point it states there were more EMS personnel at the smaller Altavista Uncle Billy's Day event.
The report acknowledges how hard it was for emergency crews to transport patients from the spectator area to the EMS tents for treatment. And it states keeping costs low created tension between emergency crews and show organizers during the planning process. The report is meant to look at what went wrong so it doesn't happen again.
A wide-ranging report on the Lynchburg Regional Air Show in May identifies dozens of missteps made in planning and execution that at times placed the public’s safety at risk.
The report, written by a committee comprised of more than a dozen area public safety officials, dissects details of the event and its planning from a public safety point of view and outlines dozens of observations and corrective measures.
Scott Hechler, director of the Campbell County Department of Public Safety and a member of the committee, said Friday the report is an honest look at the actions taken over the two days and will be used to improve preparations for future events.
It “is not designed to assign blame or negative intent on any individual,” the report said.
Despite that, the report is clear that poor planning led to many of the problems, especially on May 21, the first day of the show.
“The level of emergency response activity during the show could best be described as a slow motion mass casualty incident,” it states, with emergency staff busy treating patients and police dealing with lost children and separated families and trying to manage traffic.
The airshow, which featured the U.S. Navy’s elite Blue Angels flight demonstration team, drew tens of thousands to the Lynchburg Regional Airport on May 21-22. The biggest problems at the event happened on the first day, when huge transportation headaches left spectators waiting after a long, hot day for up to three hours for shuttle service back to parking lots at Liberty University. Confusion, long lines and heat-related medical issues, including several that required hospital transport, ensued.
In all, 60 different observations were made by the committee and highlighted in a “Lessons Learned” section of the report. The list includes items such as tripping hazards, preferential treatment given to VIPS and injuries in the children’s inflatable area, as well as positives such as highly trained firefighters on site and the high level of collaboration among public safety responders.
The report was made public this week in advance of the Campbell County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.
Campbell County Administrator David Laurrell and Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne were unavailable for comment on Friday.
Jones Stanley, president of the Lynchburg Regional Airshow, Inc., said on Friday that he had not read the report and declined to comment.
Hechler said that despite logistical and other problems, public safety workers on site performed well.
“The EMS system both in the county and the region really showed itself to be highly capable,” he said.
According to the report, planning for Blue Angels aerial show typically takes 18 months unless it is an annual event. Final approvals from the federal government for the show were not obtained until about four weeks before the show, the report says.
Event organizers were advised by Campbell County to go through its outdoor event permit process and create an emergency operations plan. Organizers did not create the plan, the report says, and public safety personnel eventually stepped in to write one.
Organizers repeatedly tried to reduce fire, EMS and law enforcement resources and costs, the report says, and then tried to seek out another county to provide services.
At the event, public safety personnel witnessed spectators being injured because of tripping hazards, people walking on busy roads creating life safety hazards and traffic jams and VIPs receiving preferential treatment, increasing the tension of the crowds.
They also saw successful use of police checkpoints, EMS bike teams and collaboration between public safety agencies and staff.
According to the report, 11 spectators were transported to the hospital and others reported that they had taken themselves to the emergency room for treatment. Hospital records from that weekend show that eight spectators were treated and transported to the hospital. Overall, 60-70 people were treated on site by medical personnel that weekend.
Following numerous problems Saturday organizers made changes to transportation plans, and added ambulances and an EMS treatment area, to improve the show the following day.
On Sunday the Blue Angels were grounded, cutting the show short after the planes flew too low during a maneuver.
Despite the challenges, Hechler calls the event a success.
“I think that the show was great for the community and in the future it will be great for the community to have such shows,” he said.
He stressed that personal responsibility and collaboration are key to the success of large events such as the air show. Spectators must make themselves aware of any circumstances, such as extreme heat, and take the necessary precautions.
Mark Courtney, Lynchburg Regional Airport director, also said the show, which was a challenging undertaking, was a success. He said none of those involved in the planning had been involved in the last airshow held in the Lynchburg area, in 1982.
He said “a process is already under way to restructure air show governance” ensuring direct partnerships between all parties. If successful, and the group can resolve some of the issues, Courtney said they would like to have another show, possibly in 2013.
“The lesson is that it takes time and collaboration to plan for a show,” said Hechler. “The challenge, or lesson learned, as far as having a large-scale event, is to take preventive measures not reactive.”