Each of the methods used to signal the start of an emergency; the mayday call, the crash bell or even a message that starts “this is not a drill” sends a rush of adrenaline through all of those involved.
Whilst it is rare that an aeroplane is inbound to an airport with a full scale emergency; critically sick passengers or an aeroplane that is compromised by some technical failure, each airport keeps itself ready to react. Traditionally fire fighters practice their emergency procedures each day and airport companies should run smaller studies on a regular basis. ICAO calls for a full scale exercise every two or three years. These exercises are needed to test that procedures are still appropriate and that staff know what to do when the procedures are needed in anger.
A realistic test of the procedures can be achieved during a full scale emergency response exercise. Such exercises are usually announced in advance. These are often run using a real aeroplane and volunteers who simulate various levels of injury. A perfect example was the exercise held by the Israel Airports Authority this month.
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When the Israel Airports Authority holds a full scale emergency exercise at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, they don’t hold back. In the past, an old Boeing 747 was set on fire and was allowed to burn out. New environmental requirements prevented such a scenario in 2016. This year an old Alitalia Airbus A321, named Piazza Castello, Torino, registration number EI-IXB was used to stand in for an El Al Boeing 737 that, in the scenario, developed a hydraulic failure and made an in-flight return after departing for Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. The old plane sat, somewhat forlorn, with its engines removed and with its old colours obscured waiting for the crash… a simulated runway excursion from Tel Aviv’s runway 21 following by a gear collapse; braking and steering had been compromised as the result of damage caused by a high speed tyre failure on take-off
A well prepared full scale emergency exercise
About 200 Israeli and international observers sat in a temporary grandstand erected near the threshold of runway 31 at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport and waited for the accident to happen. To70 was pleased to be involved and a senior consultant acted as one of the observers to the airport’s exercise.
A large, 5 x 2 metre TV screen relayed images from the family reception centre, the marshalling areas and other parts of this large scale exercise, spread across the hot tarmac and concrete of Ben Gurion airport.
The exercise code-named ‘Ibis’ went ‘real time’ at T-20 minutes. Airport assets were assembled; the police cleared a path, land-side, for emergency response vehicles from the city to get to their marshalling areas. For the family reception centre, the airport’s staff canteen was emptied and the tables were put to a new use; counselling of friends and relatives and the provision of information; in some cases, the provision of very bad news. Not everyone was going to get out of this accident in one piece.
Suddenly, a smoke generator in the Airbus’s left wing started to produce smoke; the exercise is running and response times are being measured from here on.
Fire and ambulance vehicles arrived in waves. The very first response is dousing the aeroplane in water and foam. It didn’t take long to get the fire under control and the next priority was to get the walking wounded out of the way; 100 live ‘passengers’ left the aeroplane by slides and stairs. 70 lifelike and heavy dolls were removed by the fire fighters. Triage; the prioritization of the wounded, and their transportation away from the scene was the next phase.This needed ambulance after ambulance to attend the scene. At one point, about 40 vehicles were being marshalled by a traffic co-ordinator on three sides of the aeroplane. This included, briefly, a three-engined CH-53 helicopter from the Israeli military that arrived to ferry the most seriously injured away from the scene.
After the noise, the sea of high-visibility jackets, the flashing lights on vehicles, it all went quiet. It was over. As quickly as it had started, EI-IXB, still dripping foam and water, was alone at the edge of runway 21. Twenty ‘passengers’ had died and a similar number were seriously injured. In reality, the exercise had hurt no-one and it left the airport authorities and the other parties to reflect and analyse what had happened.
The observers, of whom 30-odd observers from Airports Council International – Europe, including To70, having been able to watch the exercise close-up were also left to consider what they had seen: a comprehensive and extensive test of the airport’s ability to mobilise and co-ordinate a large number of vehicles and specialist responders in a small space whilst keeping the airport open. We had also been able to see how the family reception area had been set up at speed from the normal furnishings of a staff canteen and an amount of equipment (in particular, signage) stored for the purpose.
What can we take from the exercise?
In short, the devil is in the detail. The exercise run by Israel Airports Authority relied on detailed descriptions of all of the procedures. Even the order in which the vehicles were marshalled at the staging posts was pre-planned and documented. The success of this, practised, response is not just that the procedures have been tested, but that the procedures are verified as being in place, are known and have been tested as to the practicality.
Another lesson; set up the family reception centre in such a way that friends and relatives deal with a minimum number of different counsellors. Experience shows that the information that can be offered will be best received in this way.
As an afterthought, the security at Ben Gurion airport is subtle; complex screening takes place in an environment where the military are virtually invisible. Europe has not taken this path. After having watched a pair of heavily armed military police personnel at Schiphol before travelling to Tel Aviv stand around and gossip outside the departure gate, the European approach seems to lack subtlety and may possibly be ineffective. With the Israel Airports Authority planning an international conference on airport security in the near future, European airports and security bodies may need to start planning a trip to Tel Aviv.
About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. For more information, please refer to www.to70.com