9/11 Crisis Management: Lessons Learned

Blogging live from the Colorado Airport Operators Association, Annual Conference, 2012, Vail, Colorado (paraphrasing as necessary)

9/11 Crisis Management: Lessons Learned, Ken Greene – Deputy Manager of Aviation for Operations, Denver International Airport, CAOA, Vail, CO 2012. Special thanks to Mr. Greene for his contributions.

Ken started off his discussion by noting that in our industry, we can be faced with a crisis at any time. On 9/11, Ken was in the North Tower on the 65th floor of WTC 1, where the PANYNJ offices were located. He was rescued by a fire fighter after the collapse of the South Tower. The impact line was about the 92nd floor and Ken said they could hear the screams of the people in the upper floors, who were trying to get down. People had become to jump from the tower and there were fires burning on the plaza.

The plan at that point was to get to the street and run to the Hudson River, or east towards the Brooklyn Bridge. The problem was, we were in a very confined place. In the process of trying to get people out of the north tower, the south tower collapsed and spread debris through the plaza, burying Ken.

Ken noted that in only 102 minutes, we experienced the largest loss of life for any police department, along with the loss of over 300 FDNY fire fighters, 700 Cantor Fitzgerald employees, and NYPD and PANYNJ non police personnel. The WTC previously was the connecting point for three major subway lines, with over 200,000 people passing through daily, over 50,000 people worked in the towers and over 16 million sq/ft of office space was lost. Afterwards, the Port Authority lost 84 employees, displaced 3,500 employees, 34 floors of history (records, archives) were lost.

Ken goes back to 1993, when the WTC was attacked by a truck bomb, killing six and injuring over 1,000. Afterwards, the towers had a sprinkler system put in, LED exit signs with batteries, stairwell lighting with battery packed, luminescent paint on stairs/handrails, supplemental back-up power from New Jersey. Ken noted that within his first 1-2 weeks after reporting to work at Denver International Airport, he walked from the 10th floor of the Airport Office Building to the exit – he quickly ordered luminescent paint on the handrails for the Denver airport’s administrative facility.

Additional WTC improvements after 1993: security profile – upgraded fire alarm systems, delta barriers in truck docked, five ton planters around the complex, 200 security cameras installed and went to a closed complex with ID access only.

“After 1993, it gave a feeling of significantly better security… and it gave us a feeling that terrorists will never attack us again…and we were wrong.”

2001: protect all 26 facilities, coordinate with NY and NJ governors office, NYPD, FDNY, NYC Office of Emergency Management and NJ State Police; coordinate with FBI; retain Kroll-Associates security consulting firm and established counseling and support services for employees, families and improved the notification process. One of the identified vulnerabilities is that the major airports sit next to major highways and with the “new world,” in which we were now living after 9/11, and we need to think differently.

Ken learned that people react to crisis differently. Some people will continue to operate normally, reporting to work, getting through the day, some won’t. You have to find a way to take care of the people – as horrific as this is and as much stuff as you need to do, you have to find a way to address the people. We all define crisis differently, and if you miss that, you’re not going to get the most out of everybody.

Immediate objectives after 9/11: resumption of business operations mobilization of institutional knowledge base, establishment of a “proactive” public and media relations program (PANYNJ had to control the public conversation – we had to assure the public that we were still a safe place to come too (NYC)). People were either canceling or considering canceling their plans to come to New York City. While we were trying to get the operation back up and running we had to also concentrate on the greater audience, our “customers.” We had to control the message – business can go on and NYC is a safe place to do business.

We learned that a lot of the people with the institutional knowledge, were not your top managers. They were the engineers who built it and the security personnel who worked there every day – so you had managers taking direction from lower-level employees and you have some managers who don’t respond to that well.

“We were in a mode of ‘pick up sticks’.” The folks that new it the best were not the ones who ran the businesses. We had to get past that [mentally]. If you find yourself in a crisis, look at the skill set of the individuals in the room and forget about their titles and rank. “There is a time for tittles and rank, but in a crisis, figure out their skill sets.”

Normalcy: you have to give your employees, something that says ‘normalcy,’ things can be as they used to be. 9/11 was on a Tuesday – on Friday, everybody got paid, and that was a sign of normalcy. The agency’s financial back up system was located in Philadelphia. About 20 people were sent to the location in Philly to make sure everyone got a check.

“Find a point of normalcy whatever it is – it gives people a sign of hope, that there is a sense of recovery and that the world can be as it used to.”

Aviation Dept Immediate Objectives

1. Protection of the airports: working with PAPD, National Guard, FA, Airlines, concessionaires, and service providers

2. Establishment of EOC: Incident command structure; intra-agency communications; inter-agency communications; polices and procedures; human factors. The Emergency Operations Center, with Ken in charge, stayed in operation for over a year.

When you’re in an emergency command structure, different people have different jobs and different agencies have different protocols. We relaxed our vacation policies, if you wanted to leave in the middle of the day you left and no one asked why.


Internal focus: business resumption initiatives; communications; consistency; support services (employees and families)

External focus: comms, inter-agency coordination; media; supporting organizations (health, etc).

Lessons Learned

  1. Continually update emergency operating plans and procedures
  2. Conduct emergency drills and table top exercises
  3. Implement both protective and reactive security programs
  4. Practice vigilance
  5. Value Institutional Knowledge (put those who know it in the places they need to be)
  6. Teamwork
  7. Family first
  8. Bury the hatchet (we had a lot of folks who wish they didn’t have that petty issue with one of the 84 employees who died in the attacks)
“When you’re on the clock, the egos have to go away. I can work for someone for 15 years, then the next day I’ve got to sit them down and tell them, ‘here’s the plan.’ The other thing we were dealing with, is that we didn’t know what if anything else was coming.

The resounding theme of Ken’s speech was focused on, using the skill sets of the employees, and forget the titles.

There were people from across the country who did want to help, including retired PAPD officers driving across the country to lend a hand.

Commenting on NIMS, Ken believes that the management of information is just as important as management of the incident – we have situations happen at DIA where people know what’s happening on an aircraft, before ‘we” do – it’s not always accurate and the public has a way of getting information out from their perspective, before the airport has even heard about the incident or had an opportunity to respond.

An interesting after-effect is that many people didn’t leave the Port Authority; the feeling was, ‘okay, you took your best shot,’ and then they went back to work.


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