MADISON, Wis. – They were more than 10 hours into their shift when the call came in. None of them knew the impact they were about to make, or that the events of May 24 would be burned into their memories forever.
Capt. Jeffery Barker, Mathew Bartol, Steven Dempsey, Chris Klapoetke, Casey Klossner, Ryan Pafford and Joshua Popanz, firefighters for the 115th Fighter Wing Truax Fire and Emergency Services, were all on shift that day. They had spent the morning completing refresher training on the exact equipment they would need later that day.
Klossner took the call from the primary crash phone at 5:15 p.m.
“I heard the pilot call on ground frequency to the tower that there was an emergency, so I knew something was coming,” Klossner said. “I was in the alarm room when the call came in. At that time it was only thought to be a seizure so I immediately paged out for a seizure and they were enroute by 1716,” military time for 5:16 p.m.
Klapoetke, Dempsey and Bartol were on Engine 9, the primary response vehicle.
“Before we even made it out to taxiway bravo, the tower was already calling us and giving us clearance to cross one of the main runways to the other side,” Klapoetke said. “They already knew there was something big going on over there so they were giving us clearance to get there as soon as possible.”
When the team arrived on the west ramp, the aircraft had not pulled up yet. This gave them a little time to gather their equipment and get up to the jet bridge.
“Just as we got up to the top of the jet bridge, the aircraft reconnected and the flight attendant came out saying the patient wasn’t breathing,” Klapoetke said.
The patient not breathing meant the situation had escalated. Klapoetke, Dempsey and Bartol rushed onto the aircraft.
“We saw the patient laying on the floor,” Klapoetke said. “She was unresponsive and wasn’t effectively breathing, so I did a quick assessment. Yup, no pulse, she’s not breathing. We immediately removed her shirt, attached our [defibrillator] pads, verified no pulse and started CPR.”
CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a lifesaving technique used when someone’s heartbeat has stopped or that person is not breathing. In order for the CPR to be effective, one of the firefighters needed to get to the patient’s head. Bartol quickly shimmied his way past the aircraft passengers and got himself in place.
“He took airway management and started giving breaths with a bag valve mask,” Klapoetke said.
In the meantime, Dempsey was running the automated external defibrillator, a portable electronic device that checks heart rhythm and can send an electric shock to the heart to try to restore a normal rhythm.
“We did two minutes of CPR, delivered the shock and got right back onto CPR and then Dempsey and I switched out,” Klapoetke said. “Sometime during that switch is when she started fighting the bag and started breathing on her own again.”
The firefighters back in the alarm room were listening intently through all of it.
“I was sitting here wishing I was on scene helping, but you know, someone has to do this part too,” Klossner said. “Hearing Ryan call CPR in progress and shock delivered and everything – I was like oh my God, they’re right on, this is going to work. Sure enough, it did.”
Once the patient had a consistent heartbeat and breathing rhythm going, the team got her on a backboard and carried her out of the aircraft where the Madison Fire Department team was waiting.
“It doesn’t usually happen like that,” Klossner said. “I mean they were on scene within two minutes and CPR was in progress right away. Everything was absolutely textbook as far as time goes.”
Their Truax Field location meant they did not need any extra clearances besides the tower and they were given the go-ahead to get to the other side of the runway in a matter of seconds. There is not a single emergency team in the Madison area that could have gotten there as fast as the 115 FW Truax Fire and Emergency Services team did.
According to the firefighters, they credit their close location and the trusting relationship they have with the Dane County Regional Airport for saving this woman’s life.
“In this instance, we were lucky that we were there fast enough to ensure she got an organized breathing rhythm back and her brain still had enough oxygen in it where it could say, ‘hey we’re going again,'” Klapoetke said. “Time was on our side.”
The 115th Fighter Wing Truax Fire and Emergency Services provides fire and emergency services for both the fighter wing and the Dane County Regional Airport.