All members of a company’s flight department need to be well versed in the company’s emergency response planning (ERP) to prepare for an event they hope they will never face. That was the message of a live-action emergency-response drill at last month’s Schedulers and Dispatchers Conference (S&D).
“For as long as I can remember, people have been talking about the importance of bringing an ERP drill in some way to our sessions or to our attendees,” said Jo Damato, NBAA’s director of educational development and strategy. With three full days of programming and a second-day general session, “we were able to find the right opportunity to make it happen,” she added.
Handling the Crisis
Played out on stage by a cast of industry members, the presentation re-created the tense first hour in a flight scheduling department after the crash of one of its aircraft. The idea was hatched last year at the end of S&D’S 25th-anniversary show in New Orleans, and the ambitious effort–produced in partnership with crisis management training provider Fireside Partners–included a corporate video introducing the fictitious Digital Cryotech and its Delaware-based flight department; ATC communications with the aircraft and local law enforcement aerial units, during and immediately after the crash; and even breaking newscasts showing the accident scene and a press conference from the company’s CEO.
During the course of the drill, the flight department members interacted with members of the FAA, the military and even duplicitous reporters seeking information. Especially gripping was the flight department manager’s phone conversations with the near-hysterical wife of one of the crewmembers, who had learned about the accident through television reports, a moment that clearly drove home the human aspect of such a disaster and the need for a sound plan to address it. In another instance a reporter identifying himself as an FBO employee at the company’s home base called seeking information; a more seasoned member of the flight department told the person who took the call to call him back, not at the number the caller provided but at the FBO’s main number, where they learned there was no employee by that name.
At crucial junctures, replays moderated by Fireside president Don Chupp pointed out whether the performers’ responses were correct or not. In one particular instance during the drill, a flight department member cost the investigation vital time by refusing to respond to initial inquiries by authorities as to whether the company was the aircraft’s operator and if the activation of its emergency locator beacon was legitimate.
The live-action portion closed to a standing ovation by the crowd of more than 1,000 attendees, after which Chupp analyzed the situation. “I think the take-home from the program that we put on is really that the emergency response plan lives way beyond the document,” Chupp told AIN after the performance. “You need a trained frontline of schedulers, dispatchers and administrators who know how to field those initial calls and synthesize them properly.” Chupp noted that while there is no optimum time for such a crisis to occur, they tend to happen on weekends or in the early hours, “traditionally when you may not have your most senior personnel in place to take those incoming calls,” he said.
Damato reported that as she left the session she was stopped by a flight-department manager. He told her he’s going back home and preparing emergency response scripts for his entire department, right up to the CEO, so they will be better prepared if they ever find themselves in such a situation. “I love that I got this type of instant feedback and knowing that he’s going to go back and make an instant difference in his flight department,” she said.