Improving response after an accident

 - October 10, 2006, 7:52 AM

One thing that makes air transportation great is the amount of effort that the industry puts into maintaining the safety record. Today most of our political leaders and many of our trade association leaders are quick to remind us of the outstanding accident rate we have achieved.

Fortunately, we all realize that no matter how good our record is we must constantly increase our efforts just to stay even.

History has shown that takeoff and landing are the phases of flight with the highest risk. Because of that increased risk the FAA requires Part 139 airports to conduct drills once every three years to simulate on-airport emergencies. Many of the large airports conduct these drills more frequently; in fact, some conduct exercises every year.

Over the years these drills have led to a number of advances in both equipment and procedures. Today, airports are required to refine their procedures to deal with the new realities of terrorism and the necessary additional security.

For the past eight months I have been part of the planning group organizing the largest training exercise ever devised for an airport. Boston Logan Airport wanted to conduct a realistic event to test the entire emergency response system, including police, fire, emergency medical services and the city’s office of homeland security.

The number of participants grew considerably because Logan borders other cities and towns. In fact, more than 50 government agencies were involved, as were a number of private service providers under contract to those agencies.

Just trying to coordinate all the players was a major undertaking. At times during the eight months of preparation I thought we would never be able to make this event a valid training exercise. However, all that hard work paid off on the day of the exercise as every participating organization understood its role and stayed with the script.

A Simulated Emergency

The drill involved the attempted takeover of a Boeing 757 from Paris to Chicago. Federal air marshals on board became locked in a standoff in the cabin, with the captain retaining command of the aircraft. Norad F-15s escorted the airplane to Logan for a normal landing. When negotiations failed, law enforcement personnel entered the aircraft and a device was exploded [simulated], resulting in a number of fatalities and some 85 serious injuries.

This required the federal and state law enforcement personnel to interact with the airport rescue and firefighting teams and the other emergency responders. I am not aware of any previous drills that have attempted to involve so many victims with the emergency medical services in this manner.

This exercise also tested the communications and coordination of our public information systems; in a crisis, what the general public knows can go a long way toward preventing additional problems. I am sure that all of the personnel in aviation today realize that what happens with aircraft or with airports today is a big deal. Before 9/11, life in aviation was considerably different from what it is today, and we may not have seen the end of changes that affect aviation.

Lessons for Business Aviation

So what does this have to do with business aviation? A lot. While I was participating in the many planning sessions for the Logan exercise I was often reminded that a large number of airports our business leaders use are not required to have the same level of emergency response and preparedness as our larger airports. In fact, in every area of measurement the required standards are lower. While an NTSB board member, I was able to observe the negative effect on a company that results from the loss of its leaders.

There are corporate pilots who carry business leaders every day and probably never think twice about what kind of support exists at the airport they are flying into beyond fuel, food and so on. I wonder what our leaders would say if they fully understood the increased risk they face in the event of an emergency. Sometimes it seems that we act as if we believe there will be no survivors, but accident data tells a different story. Simply stated, the vast majority of accidents are survivable.

With that in mind what can we do about the airports we fly into? The first and easiest thing we can do is simply to ask the FBO or airport manager to explain what emergency equipment is available and when the last drill was. We should ask that question for all airports we operate into, including our home bases. You might just be surprised by the answers you receive.

For your home station you should find out when the next drill is and ask to participate. You will be surprised to find a welcome mat out for you. The knowledge we have is of great value to the airport emergency response community, and we need to share that knowledge when possible.

We also need to look at our own emergency response plans. Since leaving the Board I have been asked to review several response plans, some of which were prepared with outside help, and I was surprised to find many areas of concern about what was written.

These plans need to be reviewed and updated often, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Preparing for accidents is not something we often think about, but we should. It is unconscionable for someone to survive a crash only to die because of poor emergency response.