Operation Atlas

Sept. 6, 2005
Airports across the US have historically held emergency response excercises but Operation Atlas at Boston's Logan Airport is, to date, the largest drill of its kind, explains John Goglia.

Operation Atlas was the name given to the largest airport counter-terrorism drill since September 11, 2001, involving not only an airport but the entire emergency response team/system. The events around and following 9/11 have had and continue to have a major impact on much of what we do, including at our airports.

This past June, Boston’s Logan Airport held its annual emergency response drill; however, this year’s exercise was unlike any in the past. Recognizing the need to test and refine the skills of all who would now respond to any event at the airport, the Massachusetts Port Authority developed a simulated event that would involve as many of the players as possible. At the time we did not realize just how large that would become.

The stage set was as follows: A breach of security in France, the attempted takeover of an airliner in flight to the US which was unsuccessful due to Federal Air Marshal’s being on board and the airliner being escorted down to Boston by NORAD fighters. The scenario on the ground was for Federal law enforcement to start negotiations and failing that; storm the aircraft, deal with a small explosion by one of the terrorists attempting to destroy the aircraft, rescue the passengers, capture the terrorists and transport the injured to hospitals. The plan also included the transport of simulated fatalities to the morgue.

The airliner was bound for Chicago so there was activation of an emergency plan in Chicago and also support for dealing with the family members who were there to greet the arriving passengers. The airline also activated their emergency plan that included activity and responses from three locations; Chicago, Denver and San Francisco.

On the Government side the responding agencies numbered over 50. In addition there were a number of private service providers to many of these government agencies. In addition, the greater Boston hospitals activated their emergency plans as the 174 passengers who would need hospital care would overwhelm any one facility and we wanted to test the process for getting critically injured to the hospitals specializing in certain injuries such as the burn unit.

This was a very aggressive plan. To develop such a plan to this level required five major tabletop sessions involving a considerable number of people from all of the agencies mentioned above. In order to prepare for these sessions, every agency conducted a series of smaller meetings among their own staff. The federal, state and local law enforcement agencies including the Department of Homeland Security developed there own procedures to challenge and understand what they need to respond appropriately.

During the sessions we realized how much of a challenge it would be in a real event to manage the flow of information to the press. With Boston being the state capital we would have the press people working both the Mayor’s and the Governor’s offices for information in addition to the airport press office. We realized that the press has to report something therefore, it’s important to give them accurate information. Otherwise they will find someone who will present the wrong information which will take considerable time and effort to set the record straight.

Another element we needed to deal with was the reaction of the public on the day of the exercise. With the large law enforcement response we believed there may be a public reaction to the hundreds of vehicles proceeding toward the airport so every effort was made, with the cooperation of the media, to inform the area residents of the emergency response drill. That proved to be time and effort well spent as I don’t know of any problems from the response.

The actual drill started early with the first players arriving by 4.30 AM and the early preparations proceeded as planned. The aircraft departed for a flight over the Atlantic were it was met and escorted back to Logan landing without any problems. The next few hours were devoted to the law enforcement folks drilling and testing their procedures. Then the airport rescue and fire fighting and the mutual aid fire fighters drilled there process which then proceeded to transporting the injured and the fatal to the hospitals using both public and private ambulances.

Much was learned during this exercise by all who participated. There were a number of issues for the law enforcement community to think about and possibly develop new or additional procedures for. The non-law enforcement groups also had a number of issues to address including communications and coordination. I believe that it is safe to say that every agency or other group that was part of the exercise learned from this effort. The real challenge is to develop an improved process that reflects the lessons learned, as we have come to expect from our airports, such as efforts underway at Logan.