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.


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