Emergency Response Planning: there’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’

Emergency Response Planning: there’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’

The aviation industry is developing and growing at a record pace throughout the world. At the International Airport Jorge Chavez in Lima, Peru, where I work as an airline representative, we have experienced growth of over 100% in international and domestic passengers since 2010.

Today’s airline passengers expect a seamless experience from check-in to baggage reclaim at their destination. They arrive at the check-in counter, with very high customer service expectations. The airline will usually do everything possible to comply with these, recognising that it is usually going the ‘extra mile’ that differentiates one airline from another. But I often ask myself if passengers are aware of the various aspects that ensure they will arrive safely at their destination. One of these aspects is aviation emergency planning. Are the airlines and airports prepared? How will they respond? It is a simple truth that most crises hit us suddenly and unexpectedly. It is also true that the response to the disaster will depend on the country (or airport) it occurs in.

“…an emergency response plan should not just be written, checked by an authority and locked away in a filing cabinet. It should be practiced twice each year with different scenarios…”

If an aircraft accident or an act of violence occurs, an emergency response plan (ERP) describes designated roles and specific steps for an airline, ground handling company or airport to follow. Specific individuals are assigned to key roles in the emergency plan, be they airline, ground handling or airport staff, and each is provided with associated task checklists. Staff must be trained and knowledgeable of their ERPs, enabling them to be prepared in emergency situations, which are often highly stressful and time-sensitive. An ERP may help to assure business continuity but, most importantly, it should also ensure the safety of passengers and crew. During an emergency, staff will not have time to start reading the ERP. They will not have time to identify what equipment they need to complete their allocated tasks, or to work out where such items are kept. They will not have time to review roles or decide which role they will execute. This all has to be pre-established and trained for.

Emergencies will happen; it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’, so pre-planning is a must. During an emergency, we make rapid decisions, time flies faster than normal, and we usually have a lack of resources and insufficient staff. If we are not prepared, this will lead to chaos during an emergency as normal channels of authority and communication cannot be relied upon to function routinely. A well-organised emergency response plan will help to mitigate stress and bad decision-making. Staff will react immediately, knowing where to find previously-prepared equipment and checklists, and what their roles are.

We prepare the ERP in order to have a written guide to follow in an emergency or disaster. While preparing for such incidents, we are likely to discover missing or erroneous information. For this reason, we must investigate and communicate – talk with other airlines, airport security departments, and representatives of various local methods of transportation, hotels, hospitals, churches, etc. In doing so, you are likely to identify factors that may impact upon and aggravate an emergency situation, such as dense traffic around the airport, or insufficient hospital beds or morgues. Once these factors have been identified, you will be able to work with authorities and other airlines in order to mitigate them. The planning process may also bring to light deficiencies, such as a lack of resources (equipment, trained personnel, supplies), which may be corrected before an emergency does occur. In addition, an emergency plan increases staff safety awareness, helps the airline be compliant with regulations, and demonstrates the organisation’s commitment to the safety of their staff.

Airports and airlines may be surprised to find that companies which are usually in competition with each other are prepared to cooperate in times of crisis. Volunteers from one agency are only too willing to assist others. Emergency planning exercises, including volunteers, are useful.
Airports and airlines may be surprised to find that companies which are usually in competition with each other are prepared to cooperate in times of crisis. Volunteers from one agency are only too willing to assist others. Emergency planning exercises, including volunteers, are useful.

“…you are likely to identify factors that may impact upon and aggravate an emergency situation, such as dense traffic around the airport, or insufficient hospital beds or morgues…”

An emergency response plan should not just be written, checked by an authority and locked away in a filing cabinet. It should be practiced twice each year with different scenarios to ensure that the ERP is the most effective it can be for the company. Following each practice, the plan should be reviewed, and revised and clarified as required. While many companies have an ERP, typically it is rarely reviewed or practiced until the day of a crisis. Having a solid ERP, well-practiced by trained employees ensures that during a time of crisis, the company’s emergency response will be appropriate and well thought out ahead of time. It is recommended that station managers regularly discuss parts of the plan with the rest of the team, airline and ground handler, covering the whole plan each year.

At some airports, airlines will operate with their own staff or work with their station manager as the only representative whilst at other airports they may only operate with ground handling company personnel. The business model can vary but the airline must ensure that there is an ERP. The IATA Standard Ground Handling Agreement (SGHA) versions 2008, 2013 and 2018 include the need for the handling company to be a part of the emergency response plan. The ground handling company must participate in the local emergency response plan, provide support and also have its own emergency response plan:

Section 1.6: Emergency Assistance (version 2018)

It is the responsibility of the Handling Company to participate in local emergency response plan(s) in order to provide support to the Carrier in the event of an emergency including but not limited to, forced landings, accidents or acts of violence. Carrier will contact the Handling Company to establish the Carrier’s needs in an emergency and provide the Handling Company its current emergency procedures. In the absence of Carrier instructions, in part or whole, the Handling Company shall follow its own emergency response plan(s). In case of an emergency, the Handling Company shall without delay activate its local emergency plan(s) which includes the immediate notification to the Carrier and establish open-line communications with the Carrier. The Handling Company shall take all reasonable measures to assist passengers, crew and family members and to safeguard and protect baggage, cargo and mail carried in the aircraft from loss or damage in co-operation with the relevant local authorities. All documentation and information pertaining to the emergency is the property of the Carrier and shall be held confidential by the Handling Company, unless such documentation and information is specifically required by applicable law or by governmental or local authorities’ regulations. The Carrier shall reimburse the Handling Company for expenses and disbursements incurred in rendering such assistance.

With all this preparation in mind, I am sure that in many airports the airline representative in charge of preparing the ERP may become aware that the airline is not prepared to fully comply with its own plan. For example, it is unlikely to have sufficient staff at its disposal to cover all of the roles. In the case of international airlines, the ‘go teams’ or ‘care teams’ may not arrive for 24 hours or more and may not even be able to land at the airport. There will be so much to do during an emergency that the airline will not be able to cope alone. Airlines need the combined resources of other airlines and ground handling staff to cover all the roles required in such a situation. We also have to take into account that there will be family members at the airport or passengers wanting to travel. Other airlines must continue with their own operations and their staff have to handle their own passengers, most probably because their flight will also be cancelled if the emergency is occurring at the airport. An airline cannot halt its operations and send all their staff to assist another airline, but if each airline sends a few, it will be of tremendous help.

In the main airport of Lima, Peru, we started an emergency assistance programme a few years ago and discovered that many agents were willing to assist in emergencies but had little notion of where to go, what to do, or how to do it. Instead of being helpful, they were an additional hindrance for the affected airline. So, in a meeting of the Airline Operators Committee (AOC), the airlines, together with the airport authority, decided to provide structure and coordination, creating two different assistance groups. One of the groups, consisting mainly of ground handler ramp agents, is trained by the Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Department (ARFF). They assist at a designated ‘triage area’ by transporting passengers on stretchers from the accident site to the medical tents or other areas. The training courses are held weekly.

The other group is formed mainly of airline and ground handling check-in staff and is trained by an airline representative. They are assigned to the ‘friends and family assistance area’ and to the ‘uninjured passengers assistance area’. The training course is held every two months. This training is not a complete crisis emergency course, which must be held by each airline; it has the main objective of training all the voluntary agents about their responsibilities, roles, positions and how to assist affected passengers and families. It also reminds them that they are committed to supporting an affected airline. The benefit of this is that we now have a large pool of trained agents and every airline can assist an affected airline by providing a few individuals while continuing with their own operation. The affected airline can rely on the voluntary agents to be familiar with the required tasks and be assured that the number of agents provided will be much higher than if they were to respond to the emergency with its own staff.

Once the training sessions had been organised and held regularly, we had to decide how to identify the trained agents. With the collaboration of the airport ID department, each trained member receives an Airport Voluntary Brigade ID. Depending on the training group (‘ramp’, ‘friends and family’ or ‘uninjured passengers assistance’) the ID has a different colour. This ID, together with the airport’s airline ID, grants the voluntary assisting agent access to the area where he or she is needed, and the affected airline can easily check an individual’s access rights.

Additionally, for each designated emergency area, we have a trained voluntary assisting leader. The leaders assist with any issues that arise, and check that the voluntary agents are performing correctly, that they have all the materials they need, and that they get sufficient rest after a certain time. The leaders also liaise with the affected airline during the emergency.

In Lima, Peru, emergency planning courses are conducted every two months
In Lima, Peru, emergency planning courses are conducted every two months

We also needed a way to activate the voluntary agents. This is done via the airport’s emergency operations centre. Each agent receives a message via WhatsApp and can answer back indicating if he or she can respond.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which supports the creation of emergency response working groups released the following information:

Airports – especially in the past two decades – have generally sought to promote and increase collaboration among the members of the airport community, particularly between an airport and its airlines. One metric of this trend has been the increase in the number of U.S. airports with full-time emergency managers, from fewer than 10 in 2007 to more than 120 today. Collaboration and increased professionalism in airport emergency management have gone hand in hand.

No matter whether the incident is aircraft-related or an incident in the terminal – such as an active shooter, a bomb threat, or other hazard – the goals of airports, airlines, and others in the airport community are to achieve safety, security, compassion, customer service, regulatory compliance, and reputation. Achieving these goals can contribute to resiliency and to the protection of critical infrastructure and key resources.

Although air travel is one of the safest modes of travel, and airports are among the safest public spaces in the United States, air-travel incidents do occur. ACRP Synthesis 99: Emergency Working Groups at Airports documents these working groups and how they assist victims and their families and friends in the weeks following an incident.

“…we started an emergency assistance programme a few years ago and discovered that many agents were willing to assist in emergencies but had little notion of where to go, what to do, or how to do it. So instead of being helpful, they were an additional hindrance…”

The ICAO Policy on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and their Families, Doc 9998 AN/499 indicates following:

Airport operator 2.20

Because airports are often where families and friends first gather to receive information regarding an accident, airports need to have plans to provide assistance to accident victims and their families, with focus on immediate care and support following an accident. Such plans are to be implemented in coordination with air operators so as to facilitate harmonization of the assistance to be provided. To this end, the Council acknowledges that, following an accident, all airports associated with the operation may need to be involved in the provision of family assistance including the airport of departure, destination airport and alternate airports.

In conclusion, it is of utmost importance that all airlines and ground handlers work together, share information and be supportive in an emergency. The AOC should have an active role promoting the training of all agents and in encouraging support for one another throughout the airline community. We cannot work as an island; we need each other. It is also important that all the voluntary assisting agents receive consistent training to ensure they know what to do during an emergency and to prevent well-intentioned assistance from becoming an additional burden for the affected airline. Volunteers need to work independently, professionally and to report to the voluntary brigade leader. This is our commitment to our passengers and their families that fly with us. Let’s be prepared.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Benjamin Franklin


Patricia Fernandini de Kraus is an airline representative based in Lima, Peru. She is a dangerous goods and AVSEC instructor certified by the Peruvian Civil Aviation and is fully engaged in the training of the voluntary agents at her airport.