On September 11, 2001 thousands of innocent people were murdered. Since that horrific day, the aviation industry, particularly at major airports, has been investing in equipment and training for ARFF response to “New Age Threats”.
In the days immediately following 9/11, ARFF personnel at airports around the world were involved in risk assessments. Federal, state, and local authorities began to look at what had been accepted practices, and to evaluate them through new eyes. New age threats were being factored into risk assessments and analysis. Airports eliminated parking spaces in areas wherein an IED in a vehicle could compromise a terminal or other critical facility. Fuel trucks were relocated from areas that left them visible, thereby potentially at risk through airport fence lines. Additional security was developed to revalidate airport security credentials.
Airport operators and ARFF were in a “reactive” stage. When airline operations resumed, the law enforcement and intelligence community issued warnings and security directives daily, each causing a change in some procedure or method.
Funding became available for law enforcement training, the introduction of Federal Air Marshals, critical infastructure improvements, in-line baggage screening, and even the deployment of the National Guard to supplement airport security. In most cases, ARFF was only a secondary beneficiary to any of these programs. As airports struggled to find money to fund all of the necessary security enhancements, other budgets were frozen. Capital budgets with line items for ARFF vehicle replacements, protective equipment, and training were shelved for years at many airports, while awaiting the recovery of the airline industry to provide the funding for those purchases and programs.
Congress increased funding under the FIRE Act from $100 million in 2001 to $360 million in 2002. The reality was clear: 9/11 taught us that first responders to terrorist acts and other catastrophic events must be appropriately trained and equipped for the risks which they may face. This money was available through a competetive grant process to all organized fire departments in the U.S. — except those operated by the Department of Defense or those dedicated to ARFF.
The thinking was, because ARFF departments were already eligible for Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding, they wouldn’t be eligible under the FIRE Act. Only ARFF departments with responsibility for initial response to off-airport properties were eligible.
The financial health of an airport depends upon the financial health of airlines and other tenants. As airports’ economic engines slowed post-9/11, further impacts were felt. Over time, this translated into reduced funding for enhancing ARFF programs, training, and equipment. Quite frankly, the level of protection available to mitigate terrorist incidents is at the same or even lower levels than it was prior to 9/11 in many cases.
It can be argued that airport security and safety are intertwined. The ARFF mission no longer involves just its traditional role as we know it; i.e., responding to aircraft accidents and incidents. The ARFF mission has been expanded.
While mutual aid has taken on added significance at many airports, the fact remains that the ARFF department and airport police will likely be the first responders to an on-airport terrorist attack — not their mutual aid partners. Thus, it’s essential that ARFF departments be properly trained and equipped to effectively respond to this threat, which could be in the form of biochemical threats (anthrax), rocket attacks, dirty bombs, weapons of mass destruction, etc.
The new mission
It’s clear that, as we saw on 9/11, multiple hits are a common method employed during terrorist attacks. An airport that depends completely upon the hazardous materials team, EMS response, or structural firefighting apparatus from the outside community may be waiting a long time if multiple hits include major targets in its own community. If the next call that comes in is for a bomb at the airport’s high rise hotel, what resources remain to respond?