Disaster Planning, Logan-Style

Step-by-step account of a recent terror exercise


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.

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