Conducting an ineffective airport emergency exercise constitutes a lost opportunity and entails extensive cost, in large measure in work hours. Given the large investment it’s important to design and run exercises to get the best outcome possible. In 2018, over a four-month period I was commissioned to help four airports, located in four different states and territories, to facilitate and evaluate their emergency exercises. With back-to-back planning with different organisations I picked up a few tips to share if you are planning or involved in an airport emergency exercise.
All four airports are Certified and, in accordance with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority Manual of Standards Part 139, are legally required to have an Airport Emergency Plan.
The Airport Emergency Plan:
- outlines the process for preparing and responding to an emergency occurring on or in the airport’s vicinity.
- outlines the roles and responsibilities of the emergency response agency.
- aims to minimise the effects of an emergency, particularly in saving lives and maintaining aircraft operations.
Certified airports must carry out full-scale emergency exercises at least once every two years (preferably annually), commensurate with size and scale of operations at the airport, unless the Airport Emergency Plan was activated in a real emergency within the two-year period. Certified airports should also conduct ‘table-top’ exercises involving the Airport Emergency Committee annually or whenever there is a change of major participants.
In order to provide appropriate response and standardised information to emergency responders, incidents are usually classified as either Level I, II or III, based on aircraft maximum take-off weight and passenger numbers.
Tip 1: Discuss legislation in the planning phase to know your ‘rules of engagement’
Australian civil airports are currently classified into seven security categories. Each category is defined by the type of operation, aircraft type and passenger movements. International and regular public transport flights have more security requirements. Although each State and Territory implements different legislation, if a security incident occurs, the federal security legislation may also come into play.
In the Exercise Plan, legislation is often overlooked for its importance. If you are not testing the ‘rules of engagement’ as an exercise objective, include a discussion in the exercise planning meetings. Although the Airport Emergency Plan outlines the roles and responsibilities of each agency, it can’t cover all types of incidents. The powers of each emergency response agency are different in each State or Territory. The Australian Federal Police powers at Canberra Airport differ to the Queensland Police. Remember you’re practising for a real event so understanding the legal rights of each emergency response agency can make for a more effective response.
Tip 2: Understand the ER community profile
Groote Eylandt Airport’s emergency response agents primarily came from the mine, supported by the Police and Health Services. The RAAF also have internal emergency response agents supported by the State emergency responders; however, Canberra Airport and Ballina Byron Gateway Airport rely on the State or Federal emergency response agents. This can affect response times.
If Airservices Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting Service is on airport, they are responsible for responding to incidents within 1km of the airport boundary, handing over responsibility outside of that area to the local service.
Tip 3: Understand the Airport Operators’ profile
An airport’s size and ownership have an impact on its response to an emergency. Common sense says the bigger the airport the more people are required to manage it and during the main operating hours this is true. However, after hours even the larger airports often rely on their Aerodrome Reporting Officers to manage the incident until staff can be recalled.
At the time of the exercise, Canberra Airport had 15 managers and 100 staff, all of which might play a part in responding to an incident. Understanding their roles and how they could be involved can assist an airport exercise facilitator in understanding how the airport could respond. Conversely, where there is a small team like Ballina Byron Gateway Airport, ensuring there is discussion for fatigue management and/or relief personnel, should be included to practise for a real event.
Tip 4: Be familiar with the airport
Emergency responders not knowing the right entrance gate, going to the wrong form-up point or not being familiar with the airport is a common issue in exercise debriefs. If you are facilitating an airport exercise, encourage airport familiarisations prior to the exercise, especially for new staff or if there have been changes to the airport.
Things to consider for an airport familiarisation:
- Windsocks or wind indicators – a handy reference tool especially if you are pretending to have smoke. Check the windsock for the direction that smoke would be taking if the incident was real.
- Air traffic control – controllers have a bird’s eye view of the airfield and can assist with situational awareness.
- Any hazards on the airfield – construction, ditches, hazardous material, stores, soil condition (e.g. boggy after rain) – any hazards that might affect the emergency responders accessing the site or responding to the incident.
- Water points – where can the fire service access water.
- Terminal facilities and any backup facilities if you have an incident in the terminal.
The more familiar emergency responder responders are with the airport, the quicker the response.
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