What to Do Before a Crisis Hits

Mark Crosby

Extreme weather, active shooters, civil unrest and infectious disease outbreaks. These chaotic events are in the news almost daily, and airports are often at the center of the associated media coverage. No airport wants to find itself in the national spotlight for being unprepared or not reacting effectively during an emergency.

Mark Crosby, A.A.E., is a principal consultant for Ross & Baruzzini with 20+ years of experience as an airport executive. His areas of expertise include airport security, public safety and emergency management. Previously, Crosby served as director of Public Safety and Security at Portland International Airport. He recently coauthored the after-action report for a stolen aircraft incident at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was appointed to the Airports Council International World Standing Security Committee and the Insider Threat Subcommittee of TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Council. 

More than ever before, airport executives need to be prepared for crises, because the impacts to operations reach far beyond the actual event. Gone are the days when an airport could simply perform a cursory annual review of its Airport Emergency Plans (AEPs) and hold a triennial full-scale aircraft crash exercise. Consider the recent string of high-profile incidents that have occurred at airports: terminal-wide power outages, demonstrations/protests, active shooters, spontaneous widespread evacuations, mass care/sheltering, repatriation, wildfires and attempted theft of commercial aircraft. Not a single one is required to be covered in an AEP. 

To better prepare for crises and emergencies, airport executives and their teams should focus on the 3 Rs — relationships, readiness and resources.


Decision-making during an emergency is different from the more standard, bureaucratic decision-making process. During emergencies, most airports implement the nationally adopted guidelines of the Incident Command System (ICS). During larger events, airports will usually establish an Incident Command Post (ICP) with an Incident Commander (IC) and an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) run by an EOC Manager. But each airport has its own unique politics. To overcome this, airports should spend more time discussing, planning and training to better define the roles of the ICPs/ICs and the EOCs/EOC managers while considering the following: 

•  Where do their decision-making authorities separate? 

•  How and when is unified command implemented? 

•  What happens if there are multiple incidents or the original event changes? 

•  Which entity will be responsible for keeping part of the airport open while the event is being addressed? 

Having periodic meetings with ICs, EOC Managers and key mutual aid providers is critically important for constructive relationships that make unified command more likely to be successful.


To improve readiness, airports should regularly review and update their plans, and also exercise them more often. While it’s difficult for executives to make time for such exercises while operating their airports and planning for the future, the best emergency management programs have buy-in from the top. Senior executives need to support readiness by personally leading the way and actively participating in training and exercises. Another key to success is ensuring that the airport’s Emergency Manager (EM) isn’t buried in the organizational chart. To ensure that EMs’ voices are heard, airports need to put them and their supervisors high enough in the organization that key first responders support their planning and exercising efforts. Readiness improves when leadership shows that it’s important.


Too often, EMs are added after a crisis occurs. Airports typically don’t budget for full-time equivalent (FTE) positions unless they’re mandated, as was the case after 9/11, when increased security/law enforcement was required and FAA started the rulemaking process on safety management systems.

The time has come, however, for a paradigm shift regarding emergency management resources. Airports that cannot afford to hire FTEs, or do not wish to do so, can contract consultants to provide “on-call” EM services—just as they hire outside planners, architects and engineers for capital projects. Contracting EM services can allow operators to benefit from a consultant’s experience at other airports without incurring annual salary and overhead expenses.  

Unusual, unexpected and unfair events will continue to happen at airports. The key is to be proactive, by taking a fresh look at your EM relationships, readiness and resources. As Ben Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” 

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