Disaster Planning, Logan-Style

United States airports operating under Part 139 regulations are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to carry out emergency response preparedness drills. At Boston Logan International Airport, Chief Robert Donahue of the Massachusetts Port Authority Fire Rescue Department leads his airport team and other stakeholders in these drills. Here, he details one of the airport’s most recent exercises, including what was learned and will be applied to subsequent events.

The terrorist events of September 11, 2001 changed the world forever. This point is driven home with subsequent in-flight terrorist attempts from the Richard Reid shoe bomber incident on board a transatlantic American Airlines flight which diverted to Boston, and the recent plot by terrorists to bring down ten planes over the Atlantic which was thwarted by British authorities. This new age threat has created a new normalcy which has caused a rethinking of how we see airports in terms of mission, purpose, and function — and a reshaping of how we service and protect them.

Airports have evolved as environments of multiples with various stakeholders involved: from multimodal, multiple service disciplines, multi-jurisdictional, and are vulnerable to a multitude of risks and threats. Airports are, in fact, economic engines to the regions they serve. This reality makes them targets for terrorism.

At Boston Logan International Airport, ‘Operation Atlas’ is the largest and most comprehensive exercise to date. It was designed to enhance the capability of local, state, and federal agencies to respond to a terrorist incident.

This exercise enabled the effective integration of a multitude of new stakeholders, including the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, Federal Air Marshals, United States Attorney, Massachusetts National Guard Air Wing, Northeast Air Defense System, North American Air Defense System, who joined 50 other agencies in executing the exercise.

Identifying the Goals
An exercise planning group outlined a series of goals to increase the connectivity of the emergency response system, including:

  • Create an environment where decisionmakers know each other by first name, and understand decision cycles with the highest degree of trust and confidence in each other.
  • Develop and execute a comprehensive homeland security exercise program through regional planning and response.
  • Evaluate response capacities of local, state, and federal agencies from threat to recovery.
  • Evaluate notification and communication interoperability.
  • Identify areas for improvement and develop an improvement plan.

Designing the Exercise
Over a six-month period, the emergency response system was compartmentalized by function (‘tabletops’), and the overall program was designed as a progressive training cycle, where one emergency management function built upon the next.

Tabletop 1 focused on intelligence and information sharing to enable agencies to assess the flow of threat information from top to bottom. Agencies better understand how and by whom information is shared and disseminated among agencies respectively down to first responders.

Tabletop 2 focused on field operations from notification to a unified command model under the National Incident Management System and mutual aid capacities.

Tabletop 3 focused on communication interoperability by assessing existing communication capabilities and procedures, and set the framework for a regional communications plan.

Tabletop 4 was a training module on incident command for hospitals and public health partners.

Tabletop 5 was a senior leaders workshop that brought together the executives of public and private agencies to enable role-play on strategic decision making for a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional incident, including media relations.

The Scenario Unfolds
The full-scale exercise involved more than 400 participants. The fictional scenario unfolded at approximately 0730 hours EST. French authorities notified the Transportation Security Administration of a security breach in Terminal 1 at DeGaulle Airport in Paris. French authorities confirmed knives and clubs passed through the screening checkpoint. The screener recalls cylindrical-shaped sticks with coils and wires. TSA and Customs and Border Protection identified five persons of interest on a no-fly list on a United Airlines flight from DeGaulle to Chicago O’Hare.

United Airlines flight #9073, a B-767 with 150 passengers and crew, an actual flight, departed Boston with a two-hour flight plan over the Atlantic. After departure, the flight was notified by airline operations of a security breach at DeGaulle Airport. The aircraft reported normal status. During the flight, hijackers, played by Federal Air Marshals, took over the cabin. Flight #9073 activated the hijack transponder, notifying the FAA and United Operations in Chicago. Boston Air Traffic Control notified Boston Logan Communications Center of a diversion involving a hijack.

The North American Air Defense Command System in Colorado directed the Northeast Air Defense System in Massachusetts to scramble two F-15s and intercept/escort United #9073 to Boston.

Upon landing, the aircraft was handed off by the F-15s to “Logan Command.” An aircraft emergency discreet frequency was used as the aircraft was parked in an “all-hazard” remote parking area. Through the emergency discreet frequency, the pilot was brought into a unified command organization in the development of an incident action plan.

Emergency Response
In addition to the pilot, the unified command organization involved Massachusetts State Police, Fire/EMS, airport operations, and the FBI. Control zones were established around the airplane and around the airport. Police and fire special operations teams deployed. During hostage negotiations, the perpetrators made threats and demands for the release of Richard Reid. Shortly after, a passenger was executed and thrown out of the plane, followed by an explosion and fire on board the aircraft. Law enforcement special teams assaulted the aircraft and subdued the hijackers. More than 90 ambulances and seven hospitals participated in the response.

Lessons Learned

  • Reach out to all crisis management stakeholders to include special operations teams, e.g., EOD, SWAT, as well as representatives at all levels of government. Meet and know each other before a crisis. An incident scene is no place to be exchanging business cards.
  • Build intelligence information systems, both vertically and horizontally. Boston Logan now conducts a daily airport community operational and security briefing, so that all stakeholders not only know each other, but get the same real-time information, threats, etc., from the FBI, the Massachusetts Joint Terrorism Task Force, and TSA directives.
  • Review and/or build a local, regional, and federal notification network to ensure effective and timely notifications to response partners and elected officials.
  • Integrate all public and private emergency operations centers. An incident at any airport extends far beyond the airport boundary, and will involve multiple airports (origin/destination); airlines; regional and federal partners.
  • Partner with local air traffic control and build a discreet emergency frequency. Work with airlines to explore viability of the aircraft communication addressing and reporting system (ACARS).
  • Conduct joint special operations teams — fire/hazmat, police, EOD, SWAT, underwater recovery — and develop training modules in aircraft familiarization: terminology, access, hazards. All emergency responders must be aware of aircraft ‘least risk’ bomb locations (LRBL).
  • Preplan with the airport operator to identify witness interview areas (in the event of a criminal act) which have sufficient capacity, security, and amenities. Needs in this area include at least a comfort station: passenger information, snacks, medical, aspirins, diapers, etc.