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Get Out!: Airport Evacuations, Protecting Lives and Reputations During Unplanned Events

(This article, written by myself and Lori Beckman, originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Aviation Security International Magazine, and is reprinted here with permission. To view the article in its original format, click HERE.)

How do we differentiate between an evacuation and an escape? Airports have long had evacuation plans for a variety of circumstances, from natural disasters to fire alarms and from significant weather events to security breaches. But lately the industry has had to come to terms with a new type of evacuation, one that is entirely different to the others: the chaotic, terrifying, run-for-your life escape. When a shooting starts, self-preservation instincts kick in and it’s about getting away from the gunfire by any means possible. But how can an airport effectively handle these most challenging types of evacuations? In the aftermath of the Fort Lauderdale attack, Jeffrey C. Price and Lori Beckman urge security personnel to plan for the worst, and examine the most common issues experienced by airports whose passengers and employees are forced to run for their lives.

 

Airports have seen an increase in attacks in the past few years. In the past four years, there has been an attack by a lone gunman at the Los Angeles International Airport, which killed a transportation security agent; suicide bombers at Brussels Airport; an active shooter team turned suicide bombers at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport, and the most recent, 6 January 2017, lone gunman attack in Florida at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport, which killed five people and wounded two others, to note just a few. When the shooting starts most people will instinctively bolt out any door or down any passageway in order to escape the murderous gunfire and explosions.

During this type of self-directed evacuation, people are likely to be pushed, shoved or trampled causing additional damage to property, injuries and possibly even fatalities. Additionally, emergency evacuations can cause upwards of half a million dollars of lost revenue with flight cancellations and delays, and potential lawsuits after the fact. Plus, the unplanned delays can delay and/ or cause the cancellation of flights throughout the world. Airport operators will also be judged in the court of public opinion as the media will not only investigate the airport’s response, but also the ability of the airport to properly handle the evacuation and eventual repopulation of the terminal building. Despite the chaos and the confusion airports still have a responsibility to help manage the evacuation of the rest of the airport, and to get the airport open and operational as soon as possible. Many airports have taken actions ahead of time that may help save lives during the escape, and during the subsequent evacuations and repopulation of the terminal.

In taking protective actions, airport personnel have to make a variety of decisions, the most important of which is whether to actually evacuate or shelter-in-place. During weather events or natural disasters where putting people outdoors may actually place them at greater risk, the decision is typically made to shelter-in-place until the hazardous condition has passed. However, airports must be prepared to host hundreds or possibly thousands of people for a long period of time, hours and in some cases, several days. If keeping people inside the airport could result in their being in more danger then an evacuation is the preferred course of action. During an active shooter or airport assault, it’s possible that some people should shelter-in-place, while others need to be evacuated. Adding to this challenge is that these decisions need to be made very quickly, and decision-makers may not have all the information they need in order to make the decision.

The decision to shelter-in-place puts the airport operator in the position of hotelier. Even in a short-term situation – such as a passing thunderstorm or tornado – airports must have an effective method of notifying the airport population of the hazard, and have safe areas clearly marked and accessible by all passengers and personnel. For longer term sheltering, the airport should be prepared with additional food stores, blankets, cots, and medical supplies, as many passengers ignore the advice to keep medicines with them and will have checked their medicines in their hold baggage. Some passengers may have medicines that require refrigeration after a period of time.

Terminal operations personnel often play a significant role in managing the shelter-in-place process. Despite the measures that are taken to protect them, passenger dissatisfaction will be extremely high, and additional problems will occur as restroom facilities back up and concessionaires run out of food. Passenger stress increases as time passes due to the crowded conditions. Tempers often flare and there can be an increase in police calls for service to break up fights, as well as calls for medical assistance as passengers experience stress-related medical conditions.

Airport personnel may not be able to shorten the duration of the event but they may be able to avert some anger by keeping people informed about the situation. One of the most frustrating things people feel during a shelter-in-place or an evacuation is not being informed about what’s going on and how much longer they can expect it to last. Even periodically advising individuals that there are no new updates is better than saying nothing and thus letting irritability boil over into violent outbursts.

In Ft. Lauderdale, in the aftermath of the alleged shooting by Esteban Santiago-Ruiz, many passengers who were evacuated to the airfield complained about not being given any information about what was going on or how long they were going to have to be displaced. While passenger information flow is less important than mitigating the active shooter threat, as soon as the personnel can be briefed, they should be, if for no other reason than to avoid additional incidents and make for a smoother transition back to normal operations.

Many airports, even small facilities, are equipped with tunnels to accommodate baggage systems and maintenance and utility corridors, making them relatively safe places of shelter during a tornado, high winds and storms. However, in some cases these tunnel areas are in a secured area of the airport or provide access to secure areas, so sheltering often involves closing for the duration of the storm. Prior to reopening the airport operator will have to ensure all passengers and unauthorised personnel are relocated back to the public areas and the security areas have properly been searched.

When it comes to evacuation, most airport operators are familiar with the evacuation requirements related to fire alarms and other events. When a fire alarm is triggered, or a fire reported to the airport operations centre, the immediate first responders are the local fire department, and/or Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting (ARFF) personnel. Responders must locate the source of the alarm, extinguish the fire, contain and vent noxious odours and smoke, then reinitialise the fire suppression system. Fire fighter personnel, along with emergency medical personnel, will tend to those who suffered injuries and in extreme cases, the coroner must be called if there have been fatalities. For most fire alarms the evacuation requirements are limited in scope, requiring a localised evacuation, rather than evacuating the entire airport.

However, security incidents usually require one of two types of evacuation scenarios: the orderly evacuation as a preventative measure or to conduct a search; or the chaotic escape from a life-threatening situation.

Airports routinely handle security situations such as bomb threats and suspicious items that present as possible improvised explosive devices, as well as unscreened individuals entering the sterile area of the terminal. These evacuations are usually orderly and the proper procedures should be a part of any airport emergency plan. In some cases, particularly with suspicious items, response personnel should take into account the potential blast radius of the device and evacuate the area vertically as well as horizontally, meaning the floors above and below the device should also be cleared.

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives standoff card puts the ‘safe’ evacuation distance for a pipe bomb sized explosive at 850 feet (259 metres) from the device if there is no intervening cover, and 3,750 (1,143 metres) for an evacuation distance from a rental truck sized car bomb. Standoff distance cards should be made available to landside and terminal operations personnel, and contingencies should be in place (and practised or gamed) on the procedure to take if an improvised explosive device is discovered in or around the terminal, or a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device is suspected or confirmed outside of the terminal building. Also, evacuation routes should never take individuals closer to the potential hazard, even if it means taking passengers onto the airfield if necessary.

An active shooter incident is not so much an evacuation as it is an outright escape. It is not so much, “move in an orderly fashion towards the nearest exit,” as it is, “run, hide, or fight.” While some of the protective actions relevant to natural disasters can be used during an active shooter event, separate contingency plans should exist. ‘Normal’ evacuations are usually somewhat orderly, following established evacuation routes with the assistance of airport personnel. Recovery from an evacuation is also rather orderly, compared to recovery from an active shooter escape.

During an active shooter incident, there is no evacuation plan per se, as the primary goal is to escape from the line-of-fire as quickly and effectively as possible. During the Los Angeles International Airport active shooter event on 1 November 2013, thousands of passengers and airport employees streamed onto the airport ramp areas through fire alarm access doors as fast as possible, resulting in air traffic control having to immediately shut down flight operations on the affected side of the airport. Airport police were then faced with initially determining whether the shooter had been rendered stopped, whether there were other shooters, and whether there were leave-behind bombs throughout the terminal. They were also faced with the challenge of finding out where everyone went, which included an extensive search of the airfield. Adding to the chaos were tens of thousands of people at the airport tweeting, texting and posting to social media, all sorts of information, both factual and false, about the event, leaving the public information officer a momentous task in managing inquires from the mainstream media.

Recovery from such a disorderly escape will usually take much longer than recovery from a standard evacuation as individuals do not follow established evacuation routes and are literally running for their lives. It is unreasonable to think people will follow standard evacuation protocols with someone shooting at them, so airport management should be less concerned with the methods of escape and focus on shutting down aircraft operations, notifying individuals who may be in harm’s way that they need to run for cover, and locating and neutralising the shooter.

Additionally, in a standard evacuation (where the hazard is still moving towards the airport but has not yet arrived) many people have time to bring their personal belongings with them. With an escape, there will be a variety of responses as some people will run with their belongings, thus slowing down their escape and possibly impeding others, and others will drop everything they own and run. Identifying whose bag is whose is complicated further in the case of carry-on luggage; while many people put a bag name and address tag on their hold baggage, they are not in the same habit with their carry-on bags.

During the Ft. Lauderdale incident, the airport had to assist people who were stuck because they had dropped their identification, wallets, purses, money and credit cards and didn’t get them back right away. For international airports, assistance may be needed to help reconcile individuals with their passports and other essential travel documents. The airport will also have to address the reconciliation of all the abandoned laptop bags, cell phones, and other left-behind items. The airlines can often be of assistance in this case as reconciling lost luggage with its rightful owner is an unfortunate but everyday task for an airline agent.

There are two other elements related to terminal evacuations: notifying the public and providing assistance to special populations. Airport paging systems should have the ability to override any other public address systems in case of an airport-wide emergency. Unfortunately, many people may not hear the evacuation orders, or may not take any action. In emergency situations, while some may fight, and others may take flight, others may also freeze, not believing that the bad situation is happening. ‘Freezing’ is just one of several seemingly illogical reactions that people can have during an emergency as they fail to move out of harm’s way. Airport operators should not just rely on the paging system to get the message out; airport personnel, tenants, airline employees and other workers at the airport may need to be enlisted to help with the evacuation and convince those who are hesitant to leave the area that they need to get to safety. Evacuations will bring about emotions of fear, concern and sometimes helplessness, and some will wait for instructions to be given by an official of the airport before departing the area.

Some international passengers may not understand public address messages, as it may not be in a language they understand, or they may not understand what the various types of warning alarms may mean. In 1960, an earthquake in Chile triggered a tsunami that headed for the Hawaiian Islands. Despite the warning sirens, many people did not evacuate because they were not sure what they meant. Advising people of the specific emergency and the actions to take in a variety of languages will improve compliance.

Individuals with functional needs or special needs include those with a hearing impairment, a visual impairment, physical disabilities, mental or emotional disabilities, unaccompanied children, elderly individuals, and even individuals with learning disabilities like dyslexia or the inability to read. It is also important to understand that passengers who do not have a clinical diagnosis for a particular condition may experience severe cases of anxiety in crowded or stressful situations or have other stress induced health issues. Many passenger issues may not be visible to the naked eye and may only manifest under duress.

In some countries, such as the US, it is illegal for a public-use airport to direct individuals with functional needs to use alternative evacuation points that do not provide the same level of protection and the same speed of egress as routes for those without functional needs. It is also illegal in some countries for a public-use airport to tell individuals with functional needs that they will have to wait until able-bodied individuals have evacuated before they can be evacuated.

Airport operators can solicit airport workers to volunteer to be part of an Airport Response Team. These teams can assist individuals with and without functional needs during both evacuations and sheltering-in-place situations.

The recent tragedy at the Ft. Lauderdale airport brought to light several airport evacuation issues. While many airports have evacuation plans for portions of their terminal building, usually in response to a suspicious item or a security breach, rarely does the entire airport have to be evacuated. Evacuation plans should be developed for this type of mass evacuation with rally points identified, both on and off the airport. Airport operators can use signage to identify safe areas, or access routes out of a particular area, such as fire escape routes. Additionally, the shooting at LAX airport showed the importance of airport tenant personnel during an incident. Many concessionaire employees voluntarily hid fleeing passengers in their shops or storage areas. Training airport tenant personnel on where to direct fleeing passengers (if they feel safe doing so), can help reduce the chaos of the evacuation and may save lives.

In any traumatic event, there is also the potential for psychological stress. An evacuation can, for some, simply be an inconvenience that distracts and prevents them from carrying out their work or social agenda as planned, whilst for others it is a highly traumatic experience. In the US, the American Red Cross teaches a ‘psychological first aid’ course, which should be a part of the airport terminal managers training, and the use of therapy dogs can also help ease passenger distress.

A particular challenge in public notification during an active shooter incident or explosion in the terminal is not knowing where the shooting is taking place, whether there are additional shooters, and where to direct fleeing passengers without directing them into the line of fire. Many police departments have installed gunshot detectors around their communities in order for police to better detect the location of the incident. Another important component that cannot be overlooked is the training of airport personnel in what actions to take during a situation.

Ultimately, while signage and technology can assist in an evacuation or escape, airport employees, if properly trained, are not only the most valuable assets during any emergency situation, but are also representatives of the airport authority, whose actions reflect directly upon the airport itself. Airport personnel should be trained in the appropriate actions to take during an emergency and the procedures tested, exercised and gamed frequently enough so that they become second nature, particularly as we are seeing fewer evacuations and more escapes from airport security threats.

Airport operators are not alone in solving this problem. Through industry trade organisations and other groups, airport operators should participate in developing and sharing best practices related to terminal escape and evacuations.

Jeffrey C. Price is the lead author of two textbooks, Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats, and Practical Airport Operations, Safety and Emergency Management: Protocols for Today and the Future.

Lori Beckman is the former director of security for Denver International Airport and the owner of Aviation Security Consulting (ASC) in the United States.

 

To read more of my posts on aviation security, click HERE.

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