Whidbey emergency response team takes flight

Island County is getting its own air force, of sorts.

Now in its formative stage, the Disaster Airlift Response Team is part of the county’s continually improving preparations for emergency situations, said Director of Emergency Management Eric Brooks.

Working with other emergency and volunteer agencies, Whidbey team members will be engaged for the first time in a full scale drill Saturday, Sept. 21 at Bellingham International Airport.

Brooks said DART is part of the process of responding to emergencies when existing transportation infrastructure is damaged or destroyed. The regional system uses float planes, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to transport needed supplies.

A veteran of numerous public safety activities, Ron Conlin of South Whidbey is the new DART aviation coordinator for Island County.

Conlin said the fully-operational drill at Bellingham is primarily designed to train volunteers from the Community Emergency Response Teams, or CERT, in the procedures of loading fixed wing aircraft. Volunteer pilots and amateur radio operators will also be involved.

“Participants will get hands-on experience to familiarize themselves with flight dispatching, loading capacities, loading and unloading food supplies and aircraft safety protocols,” Conlin said.

The DART exercises are conducted to assist in providing supplies for food banks around the state.

“This full-scale exercise is an important first phase of training for Island County’s development of its own DART program,” said Conlin. “The volunteer participants should be proud to be the first members of the team and crucial to the success of future disaster preparedness.”

Island County Emergency Management is working with officials from Clallam and Kitsap counties. The exercise is being conducted by Sky Terry of NW Regional Emergency Services. He is Director of Emergency Volunteer Air Corps.

“These emergency supply airlifts will be absolutely vital if they are ever needed,” Terry said. “The northwest counties are on a rotational schedule, and Whidbey will get an airlift from a drill in four years.”

To fully demonstrate the process of moving supplies during a disaster, the Whidbey CERT volunteers will first gather at the Lakeway Fred Meyers store in Bellingham to load about 900 pounds of supplies that will be flown to Jefferson County on the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula.

Volunteers will then convene at Bellingham International Airport to load food bank supplies on fixed-wing aircraft. Participants will get close-up training on what to do and not do around the planes, the different aircraft, and loading techniques.

Conlin said CERT members will also learn about necessary forms for pilots to determine proper weights and flight plan priorities. HAM radio operators will provide inter-county communications throughout the drill. The pilots in the drill come from Jefferson County.

Terry said Emergency Volunteer Air Corps has been engaged in organizing volunteers and conducting the airlift supply exercises since 2009.