Overcome Complex Communications with Networked Crisis Communication

June 24, 2016
Emergency communications can be a difficult task to handle, but proper implementation can build robust networks for safety.

Ensuring public safety on airport properties across the globe requires a complex coordination of emergency response services, advanced alerting systems and tightly integrated operations. Airport leaders and emergency managers understand how difficult it is to communicate with the people and organizations you care about. Not only are millions of passengers transiting through terminals, but airports also host different organizations using multiple communication solutions. Combined with crews working in noisy environments where audible communication is a non-starter, managing a diverse set of people and organizations that range from commercial enterprises to federal authorities is an enormous challenge.

Communicating critical information during an emergency event as soon as possible is one of the most important capabilities necessary for effective emergency response and recovery. Airports are dependent on a wide range of organizations and agencies to assist them in times of crisis and disruption. These partnerships and networks rely heavily on the timely sharing of accurate information with each other, stakeholders, passengers, and the general public.

As with the transitory system that aviation presents, airport leaders are always searching for ways to improve the coordination of emergency responses to better protect passengers, staff members, vendors at an airport, plus organizations and businesses in their nearby communities, including the public officials who will judge an airport’s emergency response leadership and efficacy.

Today, integrated safety and security solutions have grown from stand-alone, hard to manage physical systems to sophisticated communication networks that support an effective, real-time emergency response.

Complicated Notification Systems Delay Response and Add Complexity

Today many airports rely on aging technology and antiquated systems. Paging infrastructures are not integrated with other communication modes, including phones, public address (PA) systems and other alerting mechanisms. Each system is managed separately. Travelers in noisy terminals and staff personnel working on the tarmac or baggage stations rely heavily on displays (i.e., FIDS and RIDS) to get necessary communication. Managers have to oversee the flow of information for all the separate communication components. It can be total chaos when the operations center sends out an alert to the entire facility.

Then comes the challenge of managing an accurate list of external contacts. Airports may use pagers and phones to send alerts, but distribution is difficult. Emergency managers must maintain a distribution list of airport employees and contacts at external organizations, including federal and regional first responders, airlines, ground service crews, retailers, fuel suppliers, cargo companies, general aviation services and other personnel who worked in – but not for – the airport. Keeping the distribution list current is a huge ongoing burden that requires countless hours to manage, and the results are never fully accurate. Additionally, when notifications are sent, there is no way to ensure that they are reaching the intended audience.

A Brief History of Emergency Communication

The first technological attempts to notify people en masse were called Emergency Mass Notification Systems (EMNS). These basic systems utilized physical wire-based hardware, such as telephones, fire annunciators, two-way radios, and PA systems, to alert response personnel in a command center. First responders relied on public safety communicators to sort out the various types of input and recommend appropriate action.

In 2005, the speed, ubiquity and robust nature of Internet Protocol (IP) networking enabled some of those uncoordinated systems to be connected to each other, and to laptop and desktop computers. Rather than having to listen to a cacophony of audio and visual signals during a crisis, operators could see alerts on a central screen with minimal distraction.

Moving to IP-based emergency communications allowed existing physical systems to be integrated into a broader response infrastructure, without having to completely replace older legacy technology. These cost savings became critical, as airports sought new ways to upgrade safety, security, and emergency response, while maximizing return on investment (ROI) and doing the best with limited financial resources as a result of 9/11 and the economic downturns.

For example, passengers and airline personnel depend on flight information display systems (FIDS) for departure and arrival times, gate assignments, baggage claim deliveries and other travel-related information. FIDS are supplemented by ramp information display systems (RIDS) that allow ground personnel and flight crews to dock aircraft at gates, move baggage and aircraft, refuel planes, and provide on-ground maintenance and inspection.

In order to maximize efficiency and minimize aircraft turnaround times, the two systems in this example need to be connected to each other, along with the emergency response system, so that any threat to operations is communicated as accurately and quickly as possible. Ground personnel should be notified immediately if severe weather is in the area, or if they need to be aware of an inflight emergency on final approach. Inside the terminal, airline staff must be advised that ground crews may not be available until a situation has been resolved, and that flight delays are imminent.

With the next step in the evolution of EMNS, innovative airports were able to move to a facility-wide, enterprise approach for governing emergency management. Increasing numbers of network-capable devices meant more data could be brought into the command center to provide improved situational awareness. Airport operations could be monitored from multiple remote locations, and could connect large numbers of mobile personnel via smartphones or tablets.

Using alert templates, pre-defined response scenarios, and employee profiles, airports could centrally manage mass notification and control “sub-systems,” which eliminated redundancies and errors in data management across the enterprise.

Future technology advances are now expanding communications beyond airport management to vendors, communities, and other entities directly affected by airport operations. These connections need to bridge a much wider range of communications technologies, while providing the real-time response and secured flow of information that, up until now, had only been possible inside the physical and networked perimeter of the airport property.

Interoperable Communication: Next Frontier of Crisis Communication

Aging communications infrastructure, legacy technologies, and incompatible systems are challenges for many airports. Additionally, a large number of these legacy systems are proprietary, with minimal levels of technological support threatened by attrition of employees and technology products experiencing end-of-life issues.

The difficulty lies in economically transitioning these stand-alone systems into a single unified experience, which allows operators to control all inputs and outputs, and extend rapid response capability beyond the airport property. History has shown that airport operators need to inform their tenants, surrounding infrastructure, and even the broader community, to coordinate an effective response.

Communication Needs to Extend Beyond Four Walls

Most major airports with domestic and international traffic have to accommodate passenger, freight, and other ancillary operations that maintain these services. Beyond the airport itself, each airline, cargo company, maintenance business, and vendor has its own organizational processes, procedures, and cultures.

These challenges can be overwhelming. Each entity maintains a workforce of great diversity with regard to language, size, role, disability, security level, and access level. The entire aviation system must be considered, because it is an interconnected network where an individual airport does not operate in isolation.

Airport managers typically know how to handle internal communications within their physical grounds. True interoperability, however, has to include collaboration with a broader range of public and private stakeholders, including:

  • Federal and state government authorities: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
  • Public and private security and protective service organizations: Law enforcement, fire, paramedics, and ambulances
  • Airport and contract employees, including full- and part-time, on- and off-site: Retail vendors, supply chain providers, aerospace services companies, fueling, and maintenance
  • Geographic and functional neighbors: Industrial, supply chain, hospitals, schools, hotels, rental car, air freight facilities, and food vendors

It is difficult to coordinate the interactions of these entities on a daily basis. Emergency situations put these relationships under tremendous strain, precisely when seamless communications are most urgent. While some essential stakeholders may be part of the airport’s communications infrastructure, most of the ecosystem remains outside these frameworks.

Contact List Management: Exchanging One Problem for Another

Some airports and emergency management organizations have tried to establish interoperability by including external emails and contact lists within their own information distribution lists. While logical and laudable, these efforts are counterproductive in practice, for four reasons:

  • Contact lists must be constantly updated to ensure that critical information is sent to the appropriate personnel.
  • Email and other passive communications rely on someone to open and read the message. Critical information may not reach essential external personnel simply because that person is not online.
  • List-based contact management is both time and resource-intensive. Staff must work diligently to confirm information about thousands – or tens of thousands – of individuals. A more intuitive, automated solution frees staff for higher priorities.
  • Airports do not control the level of security and access to the external emails and servers.

Social Media Is Not the Answer for Interoperability

Many emergency notification systems allow surrounding organizations and the general public to sign up for email alerts via social media without permission or vetting by the originating authority.

This open-access approach makes it difficult for safety and security personnel to isolate the communications they need from the inevitable noise that arises during an emergency. More significantly, these notification systems are not secured, which creates a major risk when proper control of information is critical.

The lack of a true, interoperable system means that subscription services via social media offer no practical interoperable value other than getting the word out. Social media produces unreliable information from unknown sources that cannot be relied upon to make informed decisions during an event.

Control and Security Are Mandatory, Not an Afterthought

Control is another major concern of interoperability. Enterprise businesses expect their systems to grant them the ability to adjust roles and permissions across their organization to ensure individuals see only what they need to see, at the times they need to see it. These controls should also extend to customers, external partners, stakeholders, and the general public.

Security, likewise, needs to be inherent to the system, and is especially relevant for interoperability. By statute and as a business practice, personally identifiable information (PII), confidential operational information, and other critical data need to be protected and stored in secure failover systems, especially when essential details must be revealed on very short notice and to specifically targeted populations.

Using Networked Crisis Communication to Address Interoperability Needs

Internal alerts through multiple systems and devices are becoming more prevalent as many airports develop stronger communication programs to alert their employees. The ability to communicate with other organizations, however, is still a critical need, and must be achieved just as quickly to protect the airport ecosystem.

The first requirement is to develop the Airport Emergency Plan and protective measures that can either execute – or prevent – a mass, uncontrolled movement of travelers, or make shelter available to those who may be stranded.

Next, a community approach would suggest a phased response that includes the organizations and people located closest to the incident, followed by a reinforced response with those farther away. Mutual aid relationships must be nurtured, practiced, and maintained at local and regional levels.

Typical interoperable communication scenarios encompass:

  • Emergency events that require stakeholder notification (workforce, customers, and partners)
  • Public alerting, 911 reverse dialing, and enhanced 911 (if available)
  • Business operations notifications, such as workforce management roll call or mustering, callouts, severe weather, and important meeting reminders
  • Context-based alerting triggered by a process or event, such as a flight delay, work availability options by locale, or incoming injured patients
  • Potential public alerting and emergency warnings of an impending emergency by local, regional, or national authorities

At the forefront, two-way interactive alerting is an essential element to begin responding to any incident. Targeted recipients who receive alerts can respond with their status. They can, in turn, equip their own decision-makers with the information necessary to protect people and facilities, and then focus on arranging assistance for those impacted.

Next, airport operations need to reliably and rapidly send an alert that can reach all of its personnel across all personal and mass communication devices to ensure both visual and audio alerts are received within the ecosystem.

As the situation unfolds, airport responders need to notify on-site tenants, as well as the extended community and political authorities about the event and its level of emergency. A true state-of-the-art solution empowers each subscribing organization to create a unique, customized network of people and groups, so that the quality and fidelity of the information remains high and actionable as it is disseminated by member organizations, while maintaining their own operational protocols.

Finally, given that most commercial and certificated airports are owned or operated by local, state, and national jurisdictions, emergency response requires expanding networks of shared information and intelligence to include federal, state, and regional agencies.

Networked crisis communication should support collaboration among different functions, so responders can neutralize the event, while maintaining situational awareness among all responding entities. The system should also have a sophisticated reporting capability to capture all the system and personnel activities for post-event assessment and compliance requirements.

Outcome: Secure, Interoperable Airport Crisis Communication Network

Airports are hubs for more than aircraft. They offer a centralized point of interaction for people, organizations, technology, and communities. Airports are also an integral part of our national security. Given the unique position of an airport within its geographic and economic surroundings, it is critically important for aviation facilities to deploy secure crisis communications systems that deliver essential information, situational awareness, and real-time alerts and warnings during emergency situations.

Internal communications within airport perimeters have historically been systems of stand-alone modalities, using mobile fire and police radios, PA systems, fire annunciators, and strobe lights, with little coordination among the individual elements. The growing need to deliver alerts and warnings to external organizations and governmental agencies has only served to highlight how existing communications at airports are ready for an upgrade.

Airport executives often regard EMNS as a commoditized service where inexperienced vendors compete on price, using limited feature sets that inadequately address the full range of airport requirements. However, networked crisis communication already delivers secure, cost-effective communications platforms that streamline internal communications, empower people, and enable emergency communication and collaboration to an entire airport ecosystem.

Secure, scalable networked communication transcends devices, firewalls, radio frequencies, channels, jurisdictions, and talk groups. As the ability to share important information about an incident is enhanced, people and organizations gain the knowledge and perspective needed to respond appropriately. Credibility is increased for airport operators and responding partners, demonstrating that they are capable of acting in a highly coordinated manner. Synchronization must take place across a broad geographical area – with the airport at the center.

Airport authorities need to protect passengers, employees, vendors, and surrounding neighborhoods, as well as their reputations. A carefully researched investment in networked crisis communication is central to safety and security for each of these constituencies.

Retired Assistant Fire Chief John Linstrom serves as business development manager at the AtHoc Division of BlackBerry, for Public Safety and Aviation. He has 30 years of experience in municipal, special district, state, military and federal government agencies as an emergency manager, fire chief and mass fatality team commander.