Understanding the Mechanisms of Airport Emergency Response

Understanding the Mechanisms of Airport Emergency Response

DALLAS — In emergencies or crises, airports have a responsibility to coordinate multi-agency actions to save and protect lives and equipment from further damage.

Major incidents such as the one in June of last year at Miami International Airport (MIA) involving a Red Air (L5) McDonnell Douglas MD-82 that caught fire upon landing or the more recent one involving a Korean Air (KE) A330 that overran the runway at Mactan-Cebu International Airport (CEB) inspired us to dig deeper into the procedures airports implement to respond to such emergencies when they arise.

The incident at MIA occurred when the aircraft’s front landing gear collapsed upon touchdown, which caused the fire. Firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes and used foam vehicles to quickly put out the flames.

According to initial reports, about 140 people and 11 crew members who were on board were safely evacuated. However, three individuals were sent to the hospital, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. Why was the county’s and not the airport’s fire brigade called to the scene, and how were they able to arrive within minutes?

While our discussion primarily centers around airport emergency response in the United States, it is important to note that similar standards have been adopted globally throughout the aviation industry. This highlights the significance of having robust planning, training, and collaboration among various agencies.

Now, let’s explore what qualifies as an airport emergency. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines an airport emergency as follows: any situation, whether caused by nature or human actions, that requires immediate action to safeguard lives, protect property, and ensure public health. In the realm of aviation, emergencies can be categorized into the following types:

  • aircraft defects or malfunctions serious enough to possibly impede safe flight;
  • sabotage of aviation-related equipment;
  • bomb threats;
  • unlawfully seized aircraft;
  • dangerous goods incidents;
  • building fires; and
  • natural disasters.

The Aerodrome Emergency Plan (AEP) establishes the procedures for coordinating the responses of different airport agencies and local community organizations that can assist in responding to a disaster.

Photo: Julian Schöpfer/Airways

Aerodrome Emergency Plan (AEP)

The Airport Emergency Plan (AEP) addresses emergencies that occur either on the airport premises or directly impact it. These emergencies fall under the following conditions: a) they are within the airport’s authority and responsibility to respond to; b) they may pose a threat to the airport due to their proximity; or c) the airport has responsibilities outlined in local and regional emergency plans and mutual aid agreements.

The development of the AEP does not start from scratch. It builds upon existing emergency plans and procedures in the surrounding communities, such as an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP).

Since no airport is equipped to handle every emergency independently, they must rely on the resources available in the local community. To enhance collaboration and maximize shared knowledge and resources, it is recommended that each airport operator involve local stakeholders in the development of the AEP.

Airport resources may also be integrated into regional or local emergency plans. For example, airports can be designated as staging areas for evacuations or as locations to accommodate external experts.

The on-airport emergency services and other mutual aid entities are outlined in Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and Memoranda of Agreement (MoAs).

Photo: Sydney Airport

National Incident Management System (NIMS)

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) offers a range of standardized organizational frameworks, such as the Incident Command System (ICS), multiagency coordination systems, and public information systems. It also establishes guidelines for processes, procedures, and systems aimed at enhancing interoperability among different jurisdictions and disciplines in various domains, including:

  • training
  • resource management
  • personnel qualification and certification
  • equipment certification
  • communications and information management
  • technology support
  • continuous system improvement

In terms of facilities and equipment used to handle airport emergencies, the FAA guides the design, construction, and operation of aircraft rescue and firefighting training facilities, and the vehicles used for such events, including emergency vehicle paint schemes.

plane landing on runway
Photo: Nguyen Hung on Pexels.com

Emergency Response Team

An emergency response plan is of no use without a team to implement it. Air carriers are encouraged to establish an Emergency Response Team (ERT) as soon as possible. Such a team should consist of executive, core, and support members.

According to the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Emergency Response Plan template, the ERT core members might typically be from those externally focused departments that would have direct and immediate operational contact with the consequences of a public health emergency. These include:

  • Flight Operations
  • In-Flight Services
  • Maintenance
  • Airports
  • Cargo
  • Security and Facilitation
  • Station and Passenger Handling
  • Operations Control
  • Government Affairs

The ERT support members should be from those internally focused departments required to support the activities undertaken by an air carrier to address a public health emergency. These include:

  • Legal
  • Risk Management
  • Human resources
  • Finance/Purchasing

The normal procedure to respond to most emergencies is as follows: the department or individual within the air carrier that receives the information that could potentially necessitate an emergency response immediately contacts the Operations Control Director (or its equivalent), who, in turn, contacts the executive members of the Emergency Response Team, as outlined above.

The executive members then determine whether the Emergency Response Plan and Center should be activated. If the decision is made to open the ERC, all employees involved in the Emergency Response Team are notified and deployed. If the ERC is activated, the ERT core and support members are represented.

Photo: João Pedro Santoro/Airways

Airport Emergency Response Simulations

To ensure coordinated and appropriate care for individuals affected by emergencies, all airport staff members are exposed to emergencies and may be involved in the planned response. The central idea is to establish clear communication among all entities within the airport during emergencies. Past experiences have revealed that one of the inefficiencies observed following emergencies is the presence of shock and confusion.

The reality is that, regardless of their original roles, every airport employee may have a role to play in an emergency. As a result, the FAA requires airports to assess their preparedness for major emergencies every three years. First responders from various departments gather at airports to participate in crucial safety exercises.

During these simulations, local law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services, and hospitals collaborate to replicate the rescue efforts required in a real-life catastrophe, with actors portraying passengers in a simulated commercial airline crash.

These exercises also help prepare first responders for the more common accidents they encounter daily. The practice aids in establishing swift and effective coordination since the operation involves numerous moving parts.

Photo: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue

Aircraft Rescue, Fire Fighting


Presently, investigators are growing more wary of potential acts of sabotage, deliberate and extremely reckless behavior, as well as intentional acts of terrorism. In determining the cause of an aircraft accident, a thorough examination of the wreckage, including its precise location and the distribution of debris, has often been crucial.

As a result, it is of the utmost importance to safeguard the wreckage during rescue operations. This does not mean that the wreckage cannot be disturbed at all during firefighting operations, but any disturbance should be minimized as much as possible.

The NTSB Regulation Title 49 CFR, Part 830, §830.10(b) about the preservation of aircraft wreckage allows for the removal of aircraft components to the extent necessary to:

  • Remove persons injured or trapped;
  • Protect the aircraft from further damage, or
  • Protect the public from injury.
Photo: João Pedro Santoro/Airways

Aircraft Fire Extinguishing Agents

In instances where there is a fire incident at an airport, you may have observed emergency vehicles using foam to extinguish the flames on aircraft. This foam is composed of bubbles that have a specific gravity lower than that of water or hydrocarbon fuels. To effectively combat the fire, the foam needs to possess strong cohesive properties and the ability to cover and adhere to both horizontal and vertical surfaces.

Aqueous foam creates a strong, airtight barrier that prevents volatile and flammable vapors from coming into contact with air or oxygen. It can also cool down hot surfaces due to its high water retention capacity and the ability to flow smoothly over a burning liquid surface.

For the foam to be considered of high quality, it should be dense, long-lasting, and resistant to intense thermal radiation. Additionally, the material should have the capacity to reseal itself in the event of a mechanical rupture in the foam blanket and withstand disruption caused by wind or drafts.

Photo: João Pedro Santoro/Airways

Airport Water Rescue

The FAA issues an Advisory Circular (AC) that guides the special considerations airport operators must consider when preparing for water rescue operations in the vicinity of an airport.

These include preplanning issues such as the delineation of responsibilities, the planning process, training, and equipment.

The AC incorporates lessons learned as a result of NTSB investigations. It also contains updated sources of information about water rescue training from the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and related training offered by some maritime universities.

In addition, the US Coast Guard has issued COMDTINST M16130.2E to aid in said rescue missions.

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Training of Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) Personnel

Each holder of an airport operating certificate is required by 14 CFR Part 139.319 I to guarantee that firefighting staff members are suitably trained to carry out their duties. The FAA’s AC 150/5210-17C provides a solution for meeting this requirement while also specifying the minimum standards for training programs. The effectiveness of an ARFF training program is contingent upon achieving proficiency.

The FAA recommends implementing a comprehensive, continuous, and rigorous training program tailored to the specific training needs of each individual for ARFF personnel. This includes providing regular annual recurrent training.

Firefighters must finish their basic ARFF training before performing any ARFF tasks. Without the required additional training, it is unacceptable to simply transfer structural firefighters to ARFF responsibilities.

After completing their initial training, ARFF firefighters must attend recurrent training every 12 consecutive calendar months. Recurrent training is described as instruction given as frequently as required (AC 150/5210-17C 6/12/2015 1-2) but at least once every 12 CCM to allow ARFF firefighters to maintain an acceptable level of competency.

Flying is the safest mode of transportation, and part of this legacy is the well-established planning, training, and collaboration that airport and community emergency responders implement to deal with any type of airport emergency.

You can read here to learn more about the FAA’s ARFF training curriculum.

Featured image: Airport Emergency Response Equipment: Photo: João Pedro Santoro/Airways

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