Expectations In An Emergency

When the theme of this edition, After the Atrocity, was proposed, my first thought was that I have done a few similar articles recently, but then I considered my involvement in the responses to a number of atrocities and the issues they had in common.

Firstly, exercises and training are rarely accurate. That is not because they are not developed from real experience, or that they are not done with the best of intentions; they are just not real. Given time restraints, they miss vital issues, such as the confusion that happens immediately after an incident.

The best exercise I remember was back in the days of Australian Airlines when the airline hijacked one of its own aircraft! An exercise cannot be made completely real, so the crew and passengers were all volunteers and the whole network knew that there would be an exercise involving a hijacked aircraft.

The aircraft was a B727 and, if I recall, it departed Melbourne and the ‘terrorists’ were members of Defence. The terrorists were the only ones who knew what would happen and where the aircraft would be taken. The whole thing was filmed and afterwards turned into a documentary-style video. It was early in my aviation security career and it made a great impression on me.

I recall a couple of interesting scenes. The captain said that he had spent his whole career secure in the knowledge that the flight crew was in command of the aircraft, especially in an emergency or similar incident. Even though he knew something would happen, someone erupting into the flight deck with a firearm, shouting and telling them to put their hands on the combing was confronting and mind-numbing. No previous training prepared him for that level of shock.

Another was the customer service manager (CSM) in charge of the cabin crew, who said that his training had always focused on him negotiating with any terrorists but, in this exercise, he was handled quite roughly and had no chance to negotiate at all. Eventually, the aircraft landed (I think in Sydney) and the part of the exercise that involved the police and army trying to resolve the incident started.

Those exercises still happen, but you always know where the exercise aircraft will be and have time to prepare, whereas in this exercise, that was up to the terrorists. Readers will have seen the images of terrorists using passengers to impress the authorities with their ‘determination’ – they shoot someone. In this exercise, the terrorists selected the most junior cabin crew member and told her to select a passenger. I remember her saying that training always emphasised that she should follow the lead of the CSM but, in this case, they handled her reasonably roughly and told her not to even look at the CSM and pick someone. Eventually they picked someone and shot him. The passenger that was shot was an actor; I am not sure explaining a real ‘kneecapping’ to the insurance company would have been easy.

This hijacking exercise was as realistic as possible, but I have been involved in some that were wildly unrealistic. Remember, you should train as you do, not as you want.

The first was an emergency exercise where an aircraft had crashed on approach and landed early on a major road before sliding onto the airport and coming to rest. It was supposed to happen at 6am on a Sunday morning. The ambulance representative was a senior person in the Ambulance Service and he said that he would be in their operations centre at the time. He then laid out the actions he would take and things he would authorise. There were a couple of us who said that was unrealistic, that no one of his rank would be in the control room at that time and it would be someone junior making decisions, but he was adamant. He then gave response times and capabilities for the hospitals that were also unrealistic. At that time, he was stopped by a doctor who said something like, “Well I am in charge of those areas and unlike you I will be in bed at 6am on Sunday and I can tell you it will take me an hour to get on site and that none of the hospitals you have mentioned have the capability to handle that many casualties in that time frame.” I will not say the ambulance representative wrecked the exercise, but it showed either unrealistic expectations of their capability or perhaps a lack of confidence in his staff.

The second was another hijack exercise. In this one, an aircraft was supposed to have left Melbourne airport and, within 15 minutes, terrorists attempt to hijack the aircraft. They had not breached the flight deck door, which at the time of the exercise were armoured. According to the exercise, the aircraft immediately landed at a regional airport. I did comment that in reality the aircraft would have returned to Melbourne and, if the crew had spoken with us, we would have told them to clear the runway ASAP and, as distasteful as it sounds, we would have told them to leave the aircraft via the flight deck emergency escape. The reason for that was that it made the aircraft useless to the terrorists; they could not move or fly it if there was no one able to operate the aircraft. Anyway, it was just a comment, but a rep from the government jumped in with a, “Yes, we would be involved in that decision”, at which point I thought, “In 15 minutes?” I do not think so – we would have been lucky to have been involved, never mind anyone else.

That is a segue into my final point about after the atrocity – government. This is especially an issue in aviation when the incident may be anywhere on the planet. I also know this will be disputed by people in government, but the response by government is one of the most frustrating issues in any incident. It is not that they intend to create problems, but there tends to be a reasonable amount of rear-end covering, both at a department level and politically, and, more annoyingly, posturing by different arms of government. My best example is still the response to September 11.

As I have covered in earlier articles, I was on one of the first flights from LA into New York after the attack and, as expected, it was a little chaotic. Aviation security was then under the auspices of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but the attacks were seen by many departments as an excuse to show how they needed an increase in budget or control, how much more active they are in the terrorist sphere and how patriotic they are!

One of the more difficult things to manage was the competing expectations of the different players. For me, it came to a head when I later flew from Sydney to New York for a ‘major’ announcement by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) regarding biosecurity. The briefing was in Washington and broadcast to other nominated locations to which we were invited. With our local management, I sat and listened to the FDA announcement, which was basically that they wanted the contact details of any facility handling food and so on entering or crossing the United States. I am not sure if it was jet lag, but I did say quite loudly that I had just flown half way around the planet because the FDA had lost its phone book and I was unsure how that equated to a biosecurity announcement.

So, having been to a number of ‘after the atrocity’ incidents, I have this:

  • The offender has a major vote in how things will unfold.
  • Nothing goes as planned.
  • The people who will make the first decisions are lower in the organisation than most plans dictate. Junior people are usually forced to make decisions way above their training, capability or pay grade.
  • The first thing that happens after an incident is that your mind turns to mush and needs a quick restart.
  • Training, while vital, can give a false sense of capability or realistic expectations. It is important, but it needs to be really realistic.
  • Politics always plays a role.

Can readers recall the scene in We Were Soldiers when the colonel grabs the lieutenant deploying with his squad off the helicopter and says, “You are dead,” then he asks the sergeant, “What do you do?”; no answer, so he says, “You are dead”; to the next in command, “What do you do?” Having made his point, he then tells them to make sure that each person knows how to do the job of the person above and below them. Welcome to an emergency.

Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. As a Security Executive with Qantas Airways, Steve held a number of senior management roles covering all aspects of aviation security from policy development to airport operations. He was sent to New York immediately following the 9/11 attacks to manage the Qantas response and undertook a similar role following the 2002 Bali Bombings. On his return to Australia, he was appointed Security Manager Freight for the Qantas Group. Since 2007 he has been a Director of AvSec Consulting in partnership with Bill Dent, a fellow former Qantas Security Exec. Today Avsec Consulting provides consultants from the US, NZ, ME, Israel and Europe.

Steve can be contacted on 0404685103 or slawson@avsecconsulting.com