Experts: planning is key to emergency response

 - September 29, 2010, 11:26 AM

The June morning was already hot at Addison Airport, Texas, when the wail of emergency sirens pierced the air. As rescue workers dragged the casualties from the large-cabin jet, fire pumpers sent sprays of water toward the aircraft. Emergency medical technicians set up a triage unit nearby to determine the extent of the injuries, and ambulances were quickly loaded and dispatched to area hospitals.

The scene was that of an aviation disaster, until closer inspection revealed the casualties lying on the tarmac were actually inflatable dummies, and the fire pumpers were spraying near the twinjet, not at it. The entire event was a live test of Pepsico’s corporate flight department emergency response plan, staged with the assistance of area authorities and volunteers from a local medical college.

As momentum grows in busi­­ness aviation for the adoption of safety management systems through certification programs such as the International Standards for Business Aircraft Operators (ISBAO), to prevent accidents, many industry experts say the proactive adoption of an emergency response plan (ERP) is crucial to company preparedness if a catastrophe occurs. In designing an ERP, company
officials are expected to think of worst-case scenarios and formulate a plan to deal with them. From creating checklists for emergency response activation, establishing response teams and designating chains of command to something as simple as making sure that only authorized company representatives speak to the media, there are many facets to emergency planning.

“The thing that differentiates a company that is prepared from [one] that is not prepared is a solid understanding and grasp of what the right thing is,” said Donald Chupp, former program manager of the NTSB Academy and president of Delaware-based consultancy Fireside Partners. Speaking at the Corporate Aircraft Transactions conference earlier this year in New York City, he summed up the dangers of an ill-considered emergency plan in the face of disaster. “An insufficient or non-existent ERP is a condition requiring you to expeditiously and unceremoniously hand over your brand name,” he said.

Disaster Preparedness
Although most operators would undoubtedly prefer not to consider the aftermath of a disaster involving their aircraft, and take an “it won’t happen to me” approach, Chupp used petroleum giant BP–and its recent public relations woes–as an example of why companies should have a corporate responsibility plan to address and swiftly respond to disasters. “It used to be that if you could minimize the risk to the nth degree, that’s safety. It’s more than that now; it’s recognition that emergencies do happen.” 

Even companies with the most demanding safety culture in the industry can’t protect themselves from every threat. Many that claim to have an emergency response plan rely on a template, which might not cover all situations. “Our ERP is a living document,” said Mike Nutterfield, Pepsico’s manager of flight operations safety and standards. “Every time we go through it we find something wrong with it. It’s something you have to test at least yearly.”

Pepsico’s ERP is designed to cover the first 24 hours of a crisis, starting the moment a call is received. Whoever takes that call immediately attempts to contact one of the company’s emergency response managers, moving through a list until one is reached. That manager then works through a checklist contacting external agencies such as fire departments, airport administration and hospitals (most of which have probably already been notified) and company departments, which in a large organization can include human resources, legal, public relations and security, among others.

Based on results from the latest drill in June, Nutterfield made several changes to the plan. “People don’t answer phones anymore,” he noted, adding that an e-mail list would be compiled and the initial information would be sent in a blast. Not wishing to rely on people having a copy of the ERP handy, he also decided to attach an electronic copy of the document to the e-mail as well. “Drill it because if you don’t go through it, you don’t find out what’s wrong.”

In 1993, NetJets was still small enough that its officials knew most–if not all–of the approximately 100 owners. The company had a published disaster response plan that concerned its two divisions, NetJets Aviation and Executive Jet Management. By 2005, when the company had 3,000 owners, 3,000 cardholders and several divisions, that plan began to prove antiquated.

According to Ellyn Slow, the company’s vice president of risk management, the fractional then developed a comprehensive global emergency response plan that included the creation of approximately 20 specially trained response teams ranging from family assistance to media communications. At least once a year the company performs an emergency drill at each of its subsidiaries. A month after the adoption of the new plan, a NetJets Hawker was involved in a midair with a glider in Nevada. Although there were no fatalities, the incident validated the effectiveness of the new ERP.

NTSB Takes the Lead
Another important part of an ERP is knowing when and when not to speak. According to Chupp, most operators don’t know their rights when it comes to post-accident investigations. “You are legally entitled to representation any time the NTSB conducts an interview, and if you don’t feel that you are the one to answer that question reach for your nearest legal representative,” he said. “Anything that is written, said or produced by you becomes public information from the time it leaves your mouth, your hands or your pen.”

Former NTSB board member Robert Francis echoed that advice at the NBAA regional forum at Teterboro Airport this summer. “After an accident, you are immediately going to have a microphone in front of your face and the press is going to want you to say something. I cannot overemphasize the importance of not doing that.”

Francis noted the NTSB is extraordinarily sensitive that it is leading the accident investigation and will be the source of press releases. The investigation period is not the time to “get your word in,” he said. Since NTSB investigations are performed on a “party system,” with various stakeholders in the accident contributing information, companies that are involved in an accident can request to be named as a formal party to the investigation to be kept abreast of the developments, but are still cautioned not to comment publicly while the investigation is under way.

Those who choose to test that warning can quickly incur the Board’s wrath, as the air traffic controllers union (Natca) learned in the recently concluded inquiry into last year’s fatal midair between a Piper Lance and a tour helicopter over the Hudson River (see ­article on page 89). Early in the investigation, the FAA chastised Natca after it conducted a press conference disputing information the Board released. When it held another press conference the next day, the NTSB removed the union as a party to the investigation.