Rapid Response: Aircraft crash brings quick media and federal response

A small plane crashed into a residential neighborhood in Maryland, killing the pilot and damaging two homes


What happened

Just before 3 p.m. on a dreary and drizzly Dec. 29, 2019, the bucolic calm of the suburban Maryland neighborhood of Lanham was turned upside down in an instant.

A little over one air mile from the College Park Airport – the oldest continuously operating airport in the United States – a single-engine plane crashed into the densely populated residential neighborhood in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

A firefighter walks around the scene of a small plane crash in the Lanham neighborhood of Maryland Dec. 29, 2019. The small plane crashed in the Maryland suburbs of the nation's capital Sunday, hitting a home's carport and killing at least a person aboard the aircraft, authorities said. (Photo/Prince George's County Fire/EMS)
A firefighter walks around the scene of a small plane crash in the Lanham neighborhood of Maryland Dec. 29, 2019. The small plane crashed in the Maryland suburbs of the nation's capital Sunday, hitting a home's carport and killing at least a person aboard the aircraft, authorities said. (Photo/Prince George's County Fire/EMS)

Public Safety Communications (911 center) began receiving calls that a plane had flown into a home. Additional reports of “several bodies lying in the driveways” and “multiple houses on fire” brought a full box alarm and additional EMS units. An initial “small aircraft assignment” (limited response) was dispatched and was quickly followed up with additional units.

Some of the information that had been initially shared with dispatchers turned out to be incorrect. The pilot was killed, but, amazingly, there were no other injuries. One house was on fire and another was damaged. A car that had been parked in a driveway and the plane were both fully involved in fire upon the arrival of units from first-due West Lanham Station 28.

Reports indicate that the plane flew through an attached carport and slammed into the car, bursting into flames and damaging the attached house. Debris and heat damage affected the close delta-side exposure residence. The debris field gives an indication as to the high velocity with which the plane struck the structure.

First-arriving units were confronted with a large contingent of residents in the streets, a large debris field, the pilot’s body in open view, and what appeared to be a significant fire in progress. There is a plethora of prior-to-fire department-arrival video showing small explosions from the car and/or plane as the fire consumed what was left.

The three fires (house, plane and car) were all contained rather quickly by first-arriving units, with the scene slowly deescalating throughout the afternoon.

The victim was quickly isolated and covered, due to being in plain view.

The county foam unit (from the College Park station) and the hazardous materials response team responded to assist with extinguishment, product containment and cleanup. Fortunately, no one was home at either residence affected.

Why it’s significant

Fire and EMS departments need to be prepared for all types of responses. This incident demonstrated the impact of training and preparedness on the timely and effective outcomes of a tragic set of circumstances. Most high-performing departments respond well to individual emergencies. When those incidents involve a burning plane, a separate burning and partially collapsed house, an exposed house smoking, and a burning car in the middle of a residential neighborhood, five miles outside of Washington, DC, the challenges are significant.

Key takeaways from the plane crash

As one would expect, many media outlets as well as state and federal agencies descended on the scene, more quickly than most fire departments are used to due to the 5-mile proximity to Washington, DC.

Dealing with the local response is difficult enough, without the quick onslaught of media and federal response.

I spoke with Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department Acting Chief Tiffany Green after the incident – her first major incident since assuming the role of chief.

Similar to my own experience with the fatal gyrocopter crash into a home in Sebring, Florida, Chief Green described the feeling of being, “thrown to the wolves” with respect to that onslaught of agencies and media. Coincidentally, this was likely the last significant incident for retiring PIO Mark Brady.

There are several additional takeaways for firefighters responding to incidents like this one:

  • Having solid dispatch, operating, and command and control procedures
  • Fight like you train, train like you fight. Being prepared for ANY eventuality will help smooth the transition from the everyday to the extraordinary – whether that’s at the street/operational or command/functional level.
  • Ensure the expectations of Unified Command are developed and communicated across the command spectrum. There is little time in the National Capital Region to “make it up.” Chiefs need to be on top of their game to handle the overhead pressure – or it will handle them.
  • Ensure the chief confirms facts and details before addressing the media. A well-oiled public information system will provide the details the chief needs before stepping up to the on-scene podium.
  • Ensure command staff is aware of the chief’s expectations for interagency engagement and recovery (both for community and fire response) during and after the incident. The chief must not lose sight of their firefighters, nor command staff needs.

Additional resources for aircraft rescue operations

Following are additional articles from FireRescu1.com focused on aircraft response efforts:

Editor's Note: Have you faced a similar aircraft response? If so, share in the comments below or with the editors at editor@firerescue1.com.

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