Contact: Julie Willmot
(609) 278-7137

EWING, N.J. -A three-hour full-scale emergency exercise held May 31 at Trenton-Mercer Airport that included more than three dozen agencies was deemed a success, Mercer County officials said.

A full-scale exercise is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration to be held once every three years to measure the level of preparedness of first responders and to allow the agencies that will respond to a true emergency to train together in a single venue.

The exercise simulated an emergency in the form of an unruly passenger releasing an unknown chemical agent on board a commercial jet that was ready for departure from Trenton-Mercer Airport. After the initial response by the Mercer County Sheriff's Office to the aircraft, representatives of more than three dozen agencies and offices participated in the handling of the incident. The airport was immediately "closed," the "scene" was secured, passengers and crew were "treated" in a decontamination area, and the "suspect" was taken into custody. The simulated incident was not treated as a terrorist attack.

"This exercise is extremely important because it helps us sharpen our regionalized approach to preparedness, coordination, and response to a large emergency incident," said Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes. "Every agency at every level, from the local fire department to the FBI, has to be on the same page when an emergency occurs in Mercer County. I'm confident this exercise has left us better prepared for a real emergency."

Hughes added that the regional approach benefits taxpayers because the County can utilize the specialized training and equipment of a variety of emergency responders without purchasing that equipment itself or hiring additional personnel.

"The County Department of Transportation has worked very hard to bring as many resources to the table as possible for this exercise and beyond," said DOT Director Aaron T. Watson. "This type of collaboration will benefit the taxpayers now and in the long run, it will allow our management of an emergency to be that much more fluid."

Airport staff and other participants in the exercise will now evaluate the response and use information gained to improve or revise, if necessary, the airport emergency plan and emergency procedures.

"We exercise to evaluate and reevaluate our emergency plans and procedures," said Trenton-Mercer Airport Manager Justin Edwards. "The time and effort of everyone involved was not lost today as we collectively leave better prepared than ever before."

For purposes of the exercise, the incident itself took place on board "Flight #111," a Saab 340 aircraft holding 17 passengers and three crew members that was preparing for takeoff from Trenton-Mercer Airport to Boston on a weekday morning. The aircraft had taxied for departure to Runway 34 when the crew reported to Air Traffic Control that a passenger was being disruptive. The crew requested the Sheriff's Office dispatch officers to the plane.

Prior to the officers arriving, the unruly passenger released an unknown substance inside the cabin. The crew and passengers then began reporting symptoms consistent with acute chemical exposure. The first Sheriff's Officers to respond secured the scene and local police, fire, and HAZMAT were immediately called to respond.

Once the seriousness of the incident was recognized, the airport made the decision to shut down all air and ground traffic to Trenton-Mercer. The airport administrators then established an emergency operations center and a Joint Information Center inside the main terminal in order to coordinate the incident response. Following the Airport Emergency Plan, agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration, the FBI, the New Jersey Division of Aeronautics, the County Office of Emergency Management, County Emergency Communications, and the County Division of Public Health were contacted and their designated representatives were requested to report to Trenton-Mercer.

At the scene, airport aircraft rescue and firefighting personnel, Trenton HAZMAT, and Trenton EMS cordoned off a decontamination zone and began removing passengers and crew from the plane. The HAZMAT team boarded the aircraft and used specialized equipment to sample the substance in an attempt to determine what was dispersed by the subject. A short time later, an analysis of the substance determined it was oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray. The HAZMAT crews decontaminate each person and evaluating the extent and seriousness of their injuries. Seven people on the plane were transported to area hospitals for additional treatment after undergoing decontamination.

The suspect was taken into custody and was detained at an unspecified location for questioning by law enforcement authorities.

Once the incident was deemed under control, the first responders began to clear the scene. After securing the aircraft and other evidence, the Mercer County Sheriff's Office then conducted interviews with passengers and crew, obtained their contact information, and released them.

Finally, a press conference was held to inform the media about the incident and to take questions.

The exercise also featured, for the first time, the use of the County's new Mobile Communications Vehicle. The vehicle was acquired in March 2008 and allows seamless communication between emergency responders at the scene of a major incident.

The vehicle is essentially an on-scene command post that contains with highly technical equipment such as numerous radios, computers, and a roof-mounted video camera. The radios are uniquely designed to allow all responders to communicate on one frequency, a capability known as "interoperability." The portable nature of the vehicle also means communications can be directed and unified at the scene of an incident, allowing the County Emergency Communications Center in Lawrence to handle other calls and incidents as they occur.

Numerous agencies participated in the full-scale emergency exercise, including in the planning, organizing, advising, and operational stages. They are as follows:

  • Trenton-Mercer Airport staff
  • Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes
  • Aaron Watson, Director of Mercer County DOT&I
  • Mercer County Division of Highways
  • Mercer County Parks Commission
  • TRADE
  • Mercer County Sheriff's Office
  • Mercer County Office of Emergency Management
  • TTN Aircraft Rescue and Firefighters-Station 34
  • Pro-Tec Fire Protection Services
  • Mercer County Emergency Services Communications Center
  • Mercer County Community College volunteers
  • Ewing Township Police Department
  • Ewing Township Office of Emergency Management
  • Ewing Township EMS
  • Hopewell Township Police Department
  • Hopewell Office of Emergency Management
  • Hopewell Valley EMS
  • New Jersey Division of Aeronautics
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • US Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Prospect Heights Fire Company-Station 31
  • Pennington Road Fire Company-Station 32
  • Pennington Road First Aid Squad
  • West Trenton Fire Company-Station 33
  • Union-Titusville Fire Company-Station 53
  • Trenton EMS
  • Trenton Fire Department
  • Capital Health System EMS
  • Pennington Fire Company-Station 51
  • East Windsor Rescue Squad District One
  • Nottingham Ambulance Squad
  • East Windsor Rescue Squad District Two
  • Red Cross of Central New Jersey
  • Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers
  • Midwest Air Traffic Control Services (staffs TTN Tower)
  • Mercer County Public Information Office