How Airport Emergency Response Works
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How Airport Emergency Response Works

DALLAS – In emergency or crisis situations, 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 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 emergency situations 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 we focus on airport emergency response in the US, similar standards have been implemented globally across the industry. As we shall see, it’s all about having well-established planning, training, and collaboration across multiple agencies.

But first, what constitutes an airport emergency in the first place? According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an airport emergency is any occasion or instance, natural or man-made, that warrants action to save lives and protect property and public health. The following are the types of emergencies in aviation:

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

The processes for coordinating the reactions of various airport agencies (or services) and of those agencies in the local community that could help in reacting to the disaster are established by the Aerodrome Emergency Plan (AEP).

Photo: Julian Schöpfer/Airways

Aerodrome Emergency Plan (AEP)

The AEP addresses emergencies that occur on or directly impact, an airport or adjacent property that: a. is within the authority and responsibility of the airport to respond, or b. may present a threat to the airport because of the proximity of the emergency to the airport, or c. where the airport has responsibilities under local/regional emergency plans and by mutual aid agreements.

The development of the AEP does not start from scratch. The AEP builds on what exists in the surrounding communities, such as an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) or other emergency plans and/or procedures.

Almost no airport has the equipment necessary to handle every emergency situation on its own. Each airport must rely on the local community’s resources to some extent. To leverage common knowledge and resources for the benefit of all parties, each airport operator is urged to incorporate local people into the AEP development.

Airport resources may also be included in regional or local emergency plans. Airports might be designated as staging areas for evacuations or as locations to host outside experts, for instance.

On-airport emergency services and all other mutual aid entities are specified in Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) and Memorandums of Agreement (MoAs).

Photo: Sydney Airport

National Incident Management System (NIMS)

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) provides a set of standardized organizational structures – such as the Incident Command System (ICS), multiagency coordination systems, and public information systems – as well as requirements for processes, procedures, and systems designed to improve interoperability among jurisdictions and disciplines in various areas, 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 provides guidance on 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

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 & Facilitation
  • Station & 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

For coordinated and appropriate care and assistance to affected people during an emergency, all airport employees are exposed to emergencies and may participate in the planned reaction. The key idea is clear communication among all airport entities amid an emergency situation. Experience has taught the industry that one of the inefficiencies found following emergencies is shock and confusion.

The fact is that even if it wasn’t originally planned, every airport employee may play a part in an emergency.

Therefore, the FAA mandates that the airport check its readiness for a major emergency every three years. First responders from various departments gathered at airports to participate in a crucial safety exercise.

In the simulations, local law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services, and hospitals worked together to mimic a real-life catastrophe rescue. Real actors played passengers in a commercial airline crash.

The practice can also assist first responders to get ready for the more typical accidents they deal with on a daily basis. This kind of practice helps create quick and effective synchronization because the operation has many moving elements.

Photo: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue

Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting

Today, investigators are increasingly suspicious of sabotage, willful or egregious reckless conduct, and intentional and specific acts of terrorism. The cause of an aircraft accident has often been determined from a detailed analysis of the wreckage, including the actual location of the wreckage and where the remains of the wreckage fell.

Therefore, it is essential that wreckage be protected during rescue operations. This is not to imply that during firefighter operations, wreckage may not be disturbed; it should be kept to a minimum.

NTSB Regulation, Title 49 CFR, Part 830, §830.10(b) pertaining to 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

Whenever there has been an airport incident involving a fire, you might have seen emergency vehicles spray a type of foam to put out aircraft flames. This foam is made up of a collection of bubbles with a specific gravity that is lower than that of water or hydrocarbon fuels. Strong cohesive properties and the ability to cover and cling to both horizontal and vertical surfaces are required of the foam.

A robust, air-excluding blanket that shuts off volatile flammable vapors from access to air or oxygen is formed by aqueous foam, which cools hot surfaces thanks to its high water retention capacity and must flow freely over a burning liquid surface.

The quality foam should be dense, long-lasting, stable to severe thermal radiation, and capable of re-sealing in the event of mechanical rupture of an established blanket. It should also be able to resist disruption by wind or draft.

Photo: João Pedro Santoro/Airways

Airport Water Rescue

The FAA issues an Advisory Circular (AC) that provides guidance on 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.

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. A way of complying with this requirement is offered by the FAA’s AC 150/5210-17C, which also outlines the minimum standards for training programs. A successful ARFF training program depends on proficiency.

While each individual will have a different requirement for training hours, a thorough, ongoing, continuous, and robust training program is advised by the FAA. All ARFF personnel gets annual recurrent training on a recurring basis.

Firefighters must finish their basic ARFF training before performing any ARFF tasks. Without the required additional training, it is unacceptable to simply transfer structural firemen 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: João Pedro Santoro/Airways

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Chief Online Editor at Airways Magazine, AVSEC interpreter, and visual artist. I am a grammar and sci-fi literature geek who loves editing text and film.

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