Response agencies conduct aviation exercise from Arlington Airport

Snohomish County Sheriff
Snohomish County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Quistorf, Seattle Fire Lt. Kevin Dean and Seattle Fire Battalion Chief R.R. Mondragon coordinate the June 23 regional aviation exercise from the Arlington Airport.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — Emergency response agencies from Olympia to Snohomish County used the Arlington Airport as the command center for a regional aviation exercise June 23 that had been planned before the Oso slide, but which was impacted by its aftermath.

Seattle Fire Battalion Chief R.R. Mondragon, who supervises his department's Aviation Special Operations Team, explained that at least 10 aircraft and more personnel than he could keep track of were representing the sheriff's departments of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, as well as the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, the Washington State Patrol, the FBI, the DEA and Airlift Northwest.

"This morning we did communications tests, for air to ground, and between the command and control centers in the region," Mondragon said June 23. "This afternoon, we'll be putting this comms through their paces in tactical exercises, with simulated hoist rescues."

Mondragon explained that Northwest Regional Aviation formed nine years ago to coordinate civilian, military, law enforcement and other emergency response assets, initially with an eye toward dealing with threats of terrorism. The June 23 exercise had originally been scheduled for March 24, but the Oso slide taking place March 22 put its personnel in the position of dealing with the real thing, albeit not exactly how they'd planned.

"One day after the slide, FEMA got a good look at Northwest Regional Aviation's assets, right here at the airport," Mondragon said. "As tragic as it was, responding to that slide allowed us to learn so much more about how to communicate and coordinate our resources effectively. After Oso, this was our airbase."

During the day, Mondragon and other command center personnel at the Arlington Airport determined which assets were available for the exercise, and allocated them accordingly for specific training missions.

Multiple helicopters joined a number of other aircraft in traveling at low altitude in north Snohomish County, as scenarios simulating a flood event were conducted in the vicinity of Silvana. Stranded "victims" were hoisted into the helicopters for transport. After the slide, such a disaster is much more likely to occur.

The simulated rescue operations also included the state Department of Transportation and Army National Guard, Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management and fire districts 19, 22 and 26, SNOPAC and the Seattle Fire Department.

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