A Lasting Impact of 9/11

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?

9/11 and hurricanes Katrina and Rita taught emergency planners one very important lesson. They needed to stop planning based on the type of incidents expected and begin planning for the unexpected. That reality needs to be reflected in the ARFF mission statement, which forms the basis for the program, number of personnel, training, etc.

Certainly, an ARFF department’s mission will vary by size, fleet mix, and location. At a minimum, ARFF at a certificated airport must be trained, staffed, and equipped to satisfy the requirements in 14 CFR Part 139, as well as anything identified in the Airport Certification Manual (ACM)/Airport Emergency Plan (AEP). Many airports’ ARFF missions include:

  • Responding to aircraft land emergencies
  • Responding to aircraft water rescue emergencies (if applicable)
  • Providing emergency medical services (EMS)
  • Structural fires / hazardous materials’ incidents
  • Fire inspection and prevention
  • Investigations
  • Persons trapped in elevators/escalators
  • Vehicular accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Bomb incidents
  • Sabotage, hijack incidents, and other unlawful interference with operations
  • Power failure
  • Mutual aid response

Whether or not an airport chooses to add response to terrorist attacks to its Airport Emergency Plan is irrelevant. Response by the ARFF department to a terrorist attack on the airport is a given.Obviously, the call doesn’t usually come in as “Terrorist Attack in Terminal 3”. It’s more likely to be a report of a fire, explosion, strange odor, or people feeling ill.

ARFF responders without the proper equipment and training will respond to these events. The fact that they may not be trained to identify the breadth of the event into which they are walking, or not be watchful for secondary devices designed to take out emergency responders, may become a lesson learned too late.

Biochemical Threats

First responders to biological and chemical events must be trained (at a minimum) to identify, isolate, and evacuate. ARFF staffers are typically trained to work in atmospheres that are “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health”. They use Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs), and are badged and have access to all secure areas of the airport. Additional training and equipment is necessary to satisfy the mission as it relates to hazardous material threats. Without qualified personnel on-airport, the lives and safety of anyone exposed is at risk.

Most airports include the responsibility for hazardous materials identified in 14 CFR Part 139 with ARFF. This requirement was intended to prepare for anticipated threats, such as fuel spills or a leaking container in an air cargo facility. Today, the level of protection must match the level of threat.

Also, the distance from the airport of any mutual aid partner(s) is now a greater consideration. Outside resources are needed more than ever; the possibility that the mutual aid team cannot promptly respond, as they may be employed on other missions, must be considered.

A common sense approach in emergency planning is to provide a level of staffing, training, and equipment to match the threat levels indentified in the airport’s risk assessment for minimally:

• initial response

• identification

• isolation and evacuation

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

It’s well known that terrorists have the capability of developing so-called “dirty bombs” or other weapons of mass destruction. A dirty bomb is a dispersal device for radioactive material, which is designed to contaminate people. An airport’s emergency response team must be trained and equipped to handle such an event, with specialized equipment and procedures in place to alert them to the presence of radioactivity and to handle mass decontamination.

Landside Fire Stations

Another proactive consideration involves the development of landside fire stations. This station would house ambulances, pumpers, structural devices, etc., to more quickly respond to a bomb attack at the front of the terminal building. ARFF apparatus committed to the airfield is sized either to satisfy the minimum requirement or to satisfy the airport’s standard. ARFF apparatus should not be committed to incidents at the terminals or other structures if flight operations are being conducted.

An airport evaluation, which includes a response analysis for each risk category, will help to identify if planning and response capabilities match the airport’s goals relative to emergency response and mitigation of incidents.

Training and Equipment

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) prohibits personnel from operating within a hazardous incident without the proper training, equipment, and procedures. The regulations specifically target emergency responses. Fines can be levied if personnel are “permitted” to enter a hazardous environment without proper safeguards.

Training for first responders, consistent with OSHA regulations, involves the following:

  • A 40-hour course regarding Emergency Response to Hazardous Incidents followed within a certain timeframe by at least an eight-hour refresher course;
  • A 24-hour training course in Weapons of Mass Destruction and Integrated Emergency Response, followed within a certain timeframe by an eight-hour refresher course in WMD;
  • An annual eight-hour course on Hazardous Material Operations (HazMat first responder);
  • Baseline medical screening.

The following list is comprised of items typically associated with a biochem or WMD event (Prior to 9/11, these items did not exist at many public airports):

  • 60-minute SCBA tanks
  • Smart Bio detection tickets
  • Chemical agent detection paper
  • Chemical agent detector kit
  • Face mask with biochem cartridge
  • Radiation ‘monitor’ for emergency vehicles
  • Radiation “S” pagers
  • Level B HazMat Suits “Response Pack”
  • Level A Encapsulated HazMat suit decontamination system
  • Bomb search suit with biochem visor
  • Charcoal hoods for level B HazMat suits
  • Photoionization device
  • Nerve/blister agent monitor

A major re-thinking

New age thinking must be adopted by everyone to deal with these new age threats — this means, regulators, managers, responders, as well as the general public. The level of preparedness is only limited by imagination. Emergency planners considered that aircraft could hit the World Trade Center, but nobody believed it could cause the Twin Towers to collapse.

FEMA was prepared for hurricanes, natural disasters, and floods, but never anticipated the scale of disaster that occurred on the Gulf Coast when Katrina and her evil sister Rita came ashore and took away the protection of the levees with the tidal surges. Emergency planners who wrote those plans prepared for the anticipated devastation, but neglected the magnitude of the reality.

The risk with fuel

Airports are required to have a plan for a fire or other emergency at the fuel farm. Does that plan include the worst case scenario? Or the intentional act? Is it a complete tactical response plan, or simply a reference to “dispatch available fire equipment and personnel and make use of systems, agent, and mutual aid to combat the fire”?

What’s required is a detailed emergency response and tactical firefighting plan to protect against the greatest risk at the airport. By reading the plans for the fuel farm, calculating the surface areas of tanks and secondary containment areas, calculations can determine specifically how much foam and water flow is needed to extinguish a fire.

Foam inventories and apparatus flow rates must be calculated in advance to determine if an effective fire attack can be launched with apparatus and personnel that are normally on hand. If enough agent and adequate flow rates are not applied at the time of the fire attack, any product discharged on the fire will be overcome by the BTUs and wasted. A prepared Incident Commander will delay any discharge of agent until enough apparatus and agent are in position. Airport managers should ensure that this analysis has been performed at their fuel farms.