Orlando Int'l Battles Full-scale Emergency (Exercise)

Kathy Scott
Published in: 

In March, Orlando International Airport (MCO) hosted the largest full-scale emergency exercise in Florida history. The four-hour training event included more than 1,200 participants - 600 volunteer victims, each with a specific injury; 400 first responders from four different counties and multiple agencies; and staff from 16 hospitals throughout the region.


Project: Full-scale Emergency Exercise

Location: Orlando Int'l Airport

Participants: 600 volunteer victims; 400 first responders; 16 hospitals

Cost: $100,000

Funding: Urban Areas Security Initiative Grant

Exercise Initiator & Manager: East Central Florida Regional Planning Council

Site: Airport Training Facility

Airport Equipment Dispatched: Mobile command post; 2 ARFF units - Oshkosh(Striler and T3000 models) Mobile Command Post - Grumman Olson, AiStair - Stinar Corp.

Exercise Scenario:
An Airbus A-320 carrying 93 passengers and 5 crewmembers crashes into a hotel one mile from the airport.  In addition to including standard response elements such as patient triage & hazard identification, the off-site scenario also included the transfer of incident command to the jurisdiction of non-airport entity & area hospitals' surge capabilities.


At most full-scale emergency exercises (FSEs), the airport emergency responders take the lead and usually include local fire departments. Sometimes airline personnel, business partners, tenants and local community members are invited, too.

MCO took a different approach this year, with a scenario involving an Airbus A-320 that experiences hydraulic problems and crashes into a hotel while on a short final return to the airport. Because the scripted crash "took place" one mile away from the airport and included an aircraft carrying 93 passengers and five crewmembers, the exercise tested two key elements: area hospitals' surge capabilities for a mass casualty accident and the transition of incident command to the jurisdiction of an off-airport entity.

Evaluating the effects of patient surge was one of the biggest benefits to participating in the FSE, notes Duane Kann, fire chief for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. "We wanted to test off-site response to evaluate how the airport fit into the local community response plan instead of how they fit into ours," Kann explains.

"We also wanted to gain a better understanding of transport times.

This meant assessing turnaround time during a mass casualty incident: triaging and treatment at the incident site, loading patients into air and ground transport units, off-loading the patients at selected hospitals, and then returning back to the airport for more victims.

"The turnaround times allow a matrix to be developed to determine how many patients can be taken to each of the 16 area hospitals per hour and how many units would be needed depending on the number of patients."

This is Not a Drill

FSEs are designed to come as close to real disaster response as possible. In order to satisfy FAA requirements, all airport emergency plan functions must be exercised to assess the capabilities of the plan and personnel. In addition, response teams must coordinate with federal, state and local agencies, and activate the airport's Emergency Operations Center (EOC). During MCO's March FSE, the city of Orlando's EOC was also activated, so it and the airport EOC communicated via video link to share information.

In contrast, an airport emergency drill focuses on a single operation and exercises only.

The more comprehensive FSE that MCO participated in evaluated:

- on-site incident command
- communications
- victim rescue, decontamination, triage and treatment
- hazard identification
- responder safety and health
- site security and crowd control
- management of friends and family
- media relations
- transport to medical facilities
- surge capacity of medical resources at local hospitals

A number of "injects" were also used to move the exercise down a controlled path and introduce additional elements to the FSE. One injected false information via social media and Internet sites that suggested a terror attack brought the plane down. This set in motion joint information center activities to quash the rumor and establish a unified message from all the entities involved.

Other injects involved injuries to firefighters during victim extrication to assess the capabilities of responders to help their own.

Dual Duties

Although the scenario script described the crash occurring one mile away from the airport, the exercise actually took place at MCO's on-site training facility, which includes a classroom, four-story burn building and three aircraft - passenger and cargo.

"Having an on-site training facility provides us with a tremendous advantage, allowing for training in a multitude of disciplines to prepare for the FSE. The training facility also provides valuable props to enhance the realism of the exercise and tools for developing the improvement plan from lessons learned," says Kann.

"The MCO mobile command post was used by unified command and the operations section chiefs for on-site incident management. The ARFF Airstair unit was used to gain access to the interior of the aircraft, and the special services vehicle brought our medical supply trailer to establish the treatment area," he chronicles. "These units are not included in the FAA 139 requirements for ARFF, but are absolutely essential for an incident of this magnitude."

Holding the exercise at the on-site training facility required airport personnel to manage a full-scale emergency response while MCO remained open and operational. Two of the airport's ARFF vehicles were used for the exercise, while four others remained in service at MCO to maintain normal Index E operations, explains Kann.

"We had normal flight operations with additional medical helicopters transitioning in and out of the airspace," he recalls. "The terminal operations were split between the EOC and friends and family area exercise activities while tens of thousands of passengers processed through the airport. Managing one of the components by itself is challenging; so doing each simultaneously is an additional test."

Safety was the key to all, notes Tom Draper, director of operations for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. "With over 1,200 participants and multiple functions taking place, there were no exercise injuries."

The FSE also tested the Safety Officer Team, adds Draper: "At the EOC, the finance/admin chief had to determine how worker's compensation would flow within the mutual aid agencies."

Who Picks Up the Bill?

All indexed airports are required to participate in an FSE at least once every 36 months. Other emergency response organizations must also conduct FSEs to assess capabilities making integrated operations across counties a plausible option.

MCO was invited to participate in the March event by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (ECFRPC), an organization that works with six different counties in the region. Because of its status within the local community, ECFRPC qualified for a $100,000 Urban Areas Security Initiative Grant to manage the exercise. The grant would have been difficult for MCO to obtain by itself, notes Kann.

With so many different entities wickering in, planning the exercise took 12 months. All of the agencies participating played a role in the planning process, notes Tim Kitchen, ECFRPC's manager of emergency preparedness. The FSE was developed, conducted and evaluated by a team of subject matter experts and local representatives from numerous agencies in accordance with the Homeland Security Exercise Evaluation Program (HSEEP). The training event consequently met the National Incident Management System (NIMS) compliance required of airports in the newest version of A/C 150/5200-31c Airport Emergency Plan (2009).

Internal & External Resources

MCO personnel have participated in several FSEs over the past decade. Kann has published papers on NIMS compliance at airports, international airport public health threat responses, and NIMS compliance for meeting the FAA triennial exercise requirement. To date, more than 450 MCO personnel from 20 departments have been certified in NIMS; and participation in the March FSE satisfied the NIMS exercise requirement.

MCO supplemented its internal resources by contracting Emergency Response Educators and Consultants to serve as evaluators for the recent FSE. According to the company's CEO, Lee Newsome, there are several possibilities to accomplish an HSEEP-compliant FSE for airports without dedicated personnel like Kann.

"Some airports choose to use internal participatory evaluators, and others elect to utilize external independent evaluators to create a fair and unbiased exercise evaluation environment that is free of institutional contamination and 'halo effect' by prior knowledge of the exercise participants," Newsome explains.

The ARFF Working Group is an international non-profit organization that acts as a conduit for building networking capabilities to help provide airports with FSE expertise while reducing the institutional contamination and halo effect. Kann, for instance, has evaluated several airport exercises in Florida, and many other airports are following suit. He also serves as a section director for the organization, covering Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama. The members in his section assist nearby airports to gain free expertise; in turn, the volunteers grow from the information gained at these other airport exercises, Kann explains.

"In smaller airports, the local Office of Emergency Management serves as a facilitator to pull the stakeholders together to start the exercise planning process," says Newsome. "With larger airports, the operations manager, ARFF chief, security director and emergency preparedness manager play a critical part in coordinating airport exercises."

The HSEEP process is much more detailed and time-consuming than the way most exercises have been structured, so it is becoming more common for airports to contract out their FSEs or create an emergency management position to direct the entire airport emergency plan program, Newsome notes.

One of the biggest advantages to hiring outside evaluators like Emergency Response Educators and Consultants is their expertise in managing the After Action Report, which they provide to all participating agencies, he adds.

"At the conclusion of the exercise process, (we) provide a Master Exercise Closeout Package to the client to include all correspondences, sign-in rosters, all meeting agendas, all meeting minutes, an after action report/improvement plan, a pictorial history of the process, process evaluations and evaluation summary." 

Although the final evaluation of the MCO emergency training event is confidential, Kann is able to share some aspects: Areas of improvement were identified for the communications group, with multiple personnel and agencies utilizing several channels. Command and control was characterized as effective and showing a great deal of strengths. And additional ways to enhance the operation of an off-airport incident were identified.

Overall, Kann feels that FSE did what it was supposed to do: prepare first responders for potential mass casualty incidents and provide insight and after action takeaways for the safety of all involved.

On a similar note, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority conducted an FSE on a closed runway at Washington Dulles International Airport in May. Airport operations employees and authority police and fire/rescue personnel participated in the comprehensive event. According to a press statement, "Over 50 responding emergency vehicles, including mutual aid from eight surrounding fire departments and more than 100 volunteer actors, moulaged to simulate injuries sustained from the incident."

Emergency Operations

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