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”.

Post 9/11, the single most significant change affecting aviation was the formation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The challenge of going from zero to over 40,000 trained employees in a year, and assuming responsibility for screening over two milllion passengers daily were daunting tasks.

In the days immediately following 9/11, ARFF personnel at airports around the world were involved in risk assessments. Federal, state, and local authorities were beginning to look at what had been accepted practices, and evaluating 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. All of the parties worked together to “fill the holes” and find safer, more secure ways of restoring service at our nation’s airports. When operations resumed, the law enforcement and intelligence community issued warnings and security directives daily, each causing a change in some procedure or method which was a potential weak spot in need of reinforcement.

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. All were appropriate steps and, in fact, probably prevented additional terroroist attacks via aviation.

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.

The U.S. 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 for those operated by the Department of Defense or those dedicated to ARFF.

The thinking was that because ARFF departments were already eligible for Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding, they would not be eligible for federal funding under the FIRE Act.   That is, ARFF-dedicated departments were excluded from funding to better prepare them to protect and restore critical infrastructure. Only ARFF departments with responsibility for initial response to off-airport properties were eligible.

This is not to say that airports and ARFF departments didn’t prepare. At varying levels, based on their own goals, commitments, and funding sources, many added training and equipment as they felt appropriate. This was not driven by any federal requirement or directive, as were the security enhancements, but left up to the local authority.

In the 60 days after 9/11, air passenger traffic, as a percentage of capacity, fell to its lowest levels since commercial jets came into service. By the end of the first quarter of 2002, the nine largest carriers lost an estimated $2.4 billion for the period. The airline industry lost money for the next seven quarters, and the concern of the rating agencies increased. Standard & Poors made a decision to downgrade ratings for five major U.S. carriers to B+ or less in mid–July 2002. The ratings, of course, increased the cost of money for the airlines, contributing to reductions in flights, enplanements, and employees.

The financial health of an airport depends upon the financial health of the airline and other airport tenants. As the airport’s economic engine slows, further impacts are felt. Federal participation in projects is often based on enplanements. Revenue from other sources, such as parking and concessions, is reduced, and if the impact to the concessions is great enough, there will be closed stores and restaurants no longer providing rental income to the airport.

All of this translates into reduced funding for enhancing ARFF programs, training, and equipment. Security improvemements and enhancements have been the focus of the investments in protecting against new age threats. 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.

Certainly one factor that is not helping matters is the lack of action in Congress concerning the reauthorization of FAA and the aviation system.   Without that critical passage, very little is happening in the way of airport safety improvements. This lack of action in Washington has stymied the development and construction of safety/security projects at airports.

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 now been expanded due to the constant threat of terrorist attacks.  

While mutual aid has taken on added significance at many airports, and correctly so, the fact remains that an airport’s ARFF department and airport police will likely be the first responders to an on-airport terrorist attack, not their mutual aid partners. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that ARFF departments be properly trained and equipped to safely and effectively respond to this threat, which could be in the form of biochemical threats (anthrax), rocket attacks, dirty bombs, weapons of mass destruction, etc.  

During the most basic training in threat assessments, it is 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 the 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 hurricane Katrin 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.

The ARFF Mission

The ARFF department’s mission statement forms the basis for the program, number of personnel, training, etc. The reason for focusing on the department’s mission, and procedures followed in accomplishing it, is to understand the scope of activities occurring within the ARFF department.  

Certainly an ARFF department’s mission will vary from airport to airport, given its 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 is 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.

The reality is that terrorist attacks — both threats and actual events on airports — have been occurring since 9/11, both domestically and internationally. So, what changes have there been in ARFF operations and programs to be prepared to counteract these threats?

Biochemical Threats

First responders to biological and chemical events must be trained (at a minimum) to identify, isolate, and evacuate. ARFF staffers are typically the best airport resource for this mission, because they are trained to work in atmospheres that are “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH)”. 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 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. In today’s world, that role needs to be expanded with the level of protection matching the level of threat.

Threats such as anthrax, or other agents being used by terrorists, dictate raising the bar to the point that airport operators need to consider being the first responders through training and equipment, something that was never “in the cards” before 9/11.

Given the need for a fast and effective response, including the quick identification of the agent, the distance from the airport of mutual aid partner(s) is now a significantly greater consideration. While outside resources are needed more than ever, the real possibility that the mutual aid team cannot promptly respond, as they may be employed on other missions, must be considered.

The well-known terrorist modus operandi is to hit multiple targets simultaneously. It would be a huge mistake to send an ARFF unit into a situation without proper training and equipment. 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 well 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 in posturing for terrorist attacks involves the development of landside fire stations. The concept of having a landside station has merit, not only to assist in the airport’s role in the event of a terrorist attack, but to serve as the prime station from which EMS calls are directed. 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) has regulations that prohibit personnel from operating within a hazardous incident without the proper training, equipment, and procedures. These regulations, in fact, specifically target emergency responses. Fines can be levied if personnel are “permitted” to enter a hazardous environment without the 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 8-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 anual eight-hour course on Hazardous Material Operations (hazmat first responder);

• Baseline medical screening.

Although this varies from airport to airport, depending upon the ARFF mission statement and threat levels, the following list of equipment, although not all-inclusive, is comprised of items typically associated with a biochem or WMD event (It should be noted that 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. In the months following 9/11, everyone was taking extraordinary care to be alert, aware, and prepared.   Security was everywhere. There wasn’t a tunnel, a water supply, or a public building that did not have a police cruiser in position with lights flashing — i.e., high visibility law enforcement. The strategy was to question everything and everybody. Leaving a bag on the park bench while walking to the water fountain resulted in a notification to the bomb squad of an unnattended package.

Several months later things started relaxing. Overtime had consumed budgets, and nothing bad had happened, so vigilance gradually became less intense. Complacency started setting in — complacency that puts everyone at greater risk, particularly emergency responders, where it can cost them their lives. Preparation and training must be put in place at airports to adapt thought processes; however, this is not an easy task. It may not even be possible to fully convert the thinking of current personnel, predominantly the most senior members, but that change needs to begin.

Based on the premise that emergency planning needs to reach beyond what is expected and instead plan for the unexpected, there is an obligation to plan and prepare for realistic threats. That 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.

New age thinking needs to be embraced by emergency planners. Perhaps they should employ some of Disney’s “Imagineers” to hone that skill and prepare for “what it could be” as opposed to “what it probably will be”. For example, an automobile or dumpster fire is perhaps the most routine of fire calls. Response to such a call typically only includes one piece of fire apparatus, unless it is reported to be adjacent to a structure. It’s anticipated that the apparatus will be tied up for 30 to 40 minutes, and then return to quarters. In most cases, the apparatus will respond, along with law enforcement to handle traffic. The fire will be extinguished and overhauled, the automobile will be towed, and the street cleaned up. The apparatus will refill its water tank and secure itself from the scene, ready for the next call.

A case in point

Interjecting new age thinking would question: “What else could this routine fire be? How would the Imagineers prepare? Is this a reasonable way to think? Is this merely a routine call or a major event?” A smart, non-complacent preparation approach is illustrated in the following scenario ...

A call comes into the Airport Communications Center: “A car rental shuttle bus is on fire, lower level, Terminal 2, center lane.”

Traditional thinking enroute says:

• Add police for response to traffic

• Request a tow truck now

• Request a terminal supervisor

• Request a supervisor from the car rental company.

Traditional thinking for considerations upon arrival says:

• Check for occupants

• Congested busy area, traffic will back up.

• If extra water supply is needed beyond the water carried on the truck, a supply line must be stretched across the inside lane, which now blocks two lanes of traffic.

• Will probably activate smoke alarms in terminal from smoke banking down from the roof imposed by the upper level roadway.

• Consider sending EMS into the terminal in case smoke is a problem for occupants.

• Might need ventilation fans to clear smoke from the terminal.

• Depending on the type of bus, could be a problem towing out from under the upper level roadway. Raising the bus front end with the tow truck might not be an option. Vehicle might have to be pushed out in the open before towing.

“New age thinking” includes all of the above with the following additional concerns and considerations ...

• This bus fire is in a worst possible position. Could it be a diversion to commit resources elsewhere while a major event is planned? Could it be a dispersal devise for a dirty bomb?

• The roof of the second level roadway will trap the smoke and products being dispersed from escaping. The automatic doors of the terminal and the fresh air returns on the building will spread the contaminants throughout the building.

• Smoke and intentional contaminants and radiation will enter the adjavent parking garage.

• Could there be a secondary device intended to take out emergency responders?

Developing “new age thinking” requires “new age planning”. There is no doubt that the most proactive airports are putting this into practice. Weekly critiques of emergency responders asking questions such as “What could it have been?” or “What was going through your mind?” help raise awareness and facilitate “new age thinking”.

The risk with fuel

The greatest risk to aviation and airports is the large quantity of fuel stored and transported on airports. The reason why terrorists were able to convert passenger aircraft into Weapons of Mass Destruction was the large quantity of jet-A fuel carried on board. Most would agree that if not for this large quantity of fuel, the Twin Towers would not have fallen.

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? Does it consider 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”?

New age thinking and planning require 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 the fire. If these calculations are not done ahead of time, the failure of fire attack is highly probable.  

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. This is a case where science and mathematics need to be employed before any tactical operations. 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.  

This is a very difficult decision to make based on the urgency of a roaring fuel fire and the commands coming from airport managers who do not understand the problem, and are wondering why the fire department has not yet extinguished the fire. Airport managers should ensure that this analysis has been performed at their fuel farms.

                          * * *

A terrorist act is typically a hazardous materials incident, fire, or explosion that is intentional. Emergency planners need to prepare for all of the potential risks at their airports. In the first ten years since 9/11, a great deal of planning and expense has gone into preventing terrorist acts. Perhaps the next ten years should be spent preparing for mitigating the risks at our airports, whether they be accidental or intentional, and changing our way of thinking. We need to be educated, informed, and proactive, as well as reactive. Our thinking and planning need to keep pace with those that have set out to destroy us.

About the Author

Armen Derhohannesian

Ralph Hood is a Certified Speaking Professional who has addressed aviation groups throughout North America. A pilot since 1969, he's insured and sold airplanes at retail and distributor levels and taught aviation management for Southern Illinois University.

Ralph Hood is also an award-winning columnist (he writes for several publications), a salesman and sales manager (he sold airplanes, for crying out loud!), a teacher (he taught college-level aviation management) and a professional public speaker who has entertained and enlightened audiences from Hawaii to Spain, and from Fairbanks to Puerto Rico.

  • Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), National Speakers Association
  • Past member, National Ethics Committee, National Speakers Association
  • Past president of Alabama Speakers Association
  • Member, Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame
  • Past National Marketing Mentor, AOPA Project Pilot