An air disaster exercise conducted in Santa Barbara, California.

(Photos by authors.)

Aircraft incidents may be rare, but their potential is ever present. An incident can happen without warning at any time and in any place. Airrelated disasters present a challenge to emergency responders and can involve significant property damage, loss of life, and traumatic injuries. Objectives must be accomplished quickly and in conjunction with many other responders.

Personnel managing the scene of a major disaster must carry out their responsibilities while being pressured by disruptions from other agencies affected by the incident, the presence of the media, and the emotional effects of witnessing extensive human suffering.


Managing a crisis of this proportion requires preplanning, since you must be prepared to handle a variety of situations that do not usually arise during traditional firefighting incidents. Our research shows that no one organization or agency can handle a large aircraft incident effectively. These incidents usually are multijurisdictional and require the cooperation of a wide range of emergency response and management services. Our analyses of previous air incidents show that in many cases the responding groups met for the first time at the accident scene—a factor that resulted in chaotic operations.

Should your department be called to respond to an aircraft incident, you will have to interact with many or all of the following groups and agencies involved:

  • Other fire departments (state, county, airport, military, volunteer).
  • Emergency medical services (airline, military, hospital), health departments, the coroner, the medical examiner, state and local disaster coordinating agencies.
  • Psychological response teams.
  • Local citizen groups, volunteer groups, ham radio operators, fire buffs.
  • Private contractors; businesses; city and county departments such as public works; civil attorneys; insurance companies; military, airport, and private security.
  • Airport administration.
  • News media.
  • The political community including the airport commission, city council, and state governor.
  • The Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
  • Postal inspectors.
  • Federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF); the FBI; the U.S. Customs Service; the Immigration and Naturalization Service; the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); and FEMA.


Key roles and responsibilities change dramatically during an incident, and you will have to adjust to various positions in the evolving chain of command. The fire department usually has initial primary command responsibility for several hours. As the fires are extinguished, hazards mitigated, and victims treated and transported, the command usually is transferred to a law enforcement agency or the airport administration. Each agency must be flexible and cooperative so that transitions are defined and made smoothly and without conflict.

You will have to cope with conditions that add to your usual responsibilities. The incident area is very hazardous. Jagged metal, aircraft parts, large quantities of fuel, toxic hydraulic fluids, compressed gas cylinders, explosive wheel assemblies, unstable fuselage sections, hazardous cargo, combustible metals, and composite aircraft construction material body parts and fluids present constant dangers. Since a major aircraft disaster makes instant world news, you will encounter numerous, aggressive members of the media. Your performance during the incident undoubtedly will be scrutinized by network news reporting. Expect representatives from many emergency organizations to view the crash site. Be prepared for an intense investigation by the NTSB and the FAA. In recent years they have been adamant about the necessity for emergency readiness and have been documenting the effectiveness of emergency response. If your fire department provides fire protection for an airport, be well prepared. The FAA will review and record your training records and evaluate your proficiency level.

The more efficient and organized your incident management system is, the less impact the experience will have on your personnel, the community, and involved organizations. Effective management also expedites treating and transporting victims as well as minimizes property damage. Your ability to interact and work with the various parties involved in managing the incident can mean the difference between feeling proud of your organization’s efforts and expending energies to defend substandard performance charges by the FAA.

Federal aviation regulations (FAR 139) require that all certificated airports serving commercial passenger aircraft have a current emergency action plan and conduct an aircraft disaster exercise at least once every three years. This exercise must be designed to test the readiness of response organizations, the adequacy of resources, and the deficiencies in airport or community emergency plans. In addition, key individuals representing aircraft emergency response organizations are required to meet once a year to review their roles and responsibilities and—at the minimum—to conduct a tabletop exercise.

Unfortunately, these FAR guidelines are not being followed in many cases. Actually, as already noted, emergency personnel have been meeting and interacting only at a disaster exercise or at the emergency incident. Consequently, rarely do the participants understand or recognize each other’s roles, responsibilities, limitations, capabilities, needs, and resources. Often, they can’t visualize or understand the overall operation and focus only on their area of expertise. Communication problems are common due to a lack of radios and compatible frequencies and diverse radio codes and identifiers. Competition, resistance, power struggles, and turf protection among the various agencies add to these problems and impede progress. Each agency frequently operates under its own system instead of under a joint and unified incident command system. This behavior can seriously affect the outcome of the operation.


The first step in developing an aircraft incident management system (AIMS) is to acknowledge that a major incident can occur. Develop the mindset that deals with when it happens instead of if it happens. Next define the problems. Then evaluate the available resources, develop an emergency action plan, and ensure the cooperation of the agencies who will respond.

The fire departments in two airport communities—Santa Barbara, California and Charlotte, North Carolinarecognized that a major aircraft disaster could occur and that effective training and emergency preparedness were needed. Prior to their required aircraft disaster exercise, their key personnel attended an intensive, fourday aircraft incident management workshop. The workshop helped to unite them into an effective and efficient aircraft incident management system. The workshop used a variety of instructional techniques including structured lectures, group problem solving, team-building exercises, tours, and accident case studies; comprehensive handout materials also were distributed.

Among the topics covered were the nature of the aviation environment; aircraft familiarization; special hazards associated with aircraft; aircraft incident safety considerations; aircraft crash dynamics; fire department operations at aircraft incidents; the incident command system applied to aircraft incidents; organizations, agencies, and resources utilized at aircraft incidents; victim rescue, treatment, and transportation considerations; scene security and law enforcement considerations; military aircraft incident considerations; airline considerations; post-incident operations; incident investigation; fatality management; and aircraft incident preplanning and training.

Developing an aircraft incident management system requires extensive interagency cooperation.members of the Charlotte, North Carolina workshop break into integrated problem-solving groups and at center, the Charlotte incident commander presents the solutions developed by the groups.on the day after the workshop, Charlotte responders apply the AIMS concept to an air disaster exercise.

A positive, sharing, learning atmosphere prevailed throughout the fourday program. All participants consistently were encouraged to share information, ask questions, and get to know and feel comfortable with each other. Ample opportunity was provided for each participant to learn and understand the entire spectrum of an aircraft accident. Each agency’s functions, responsibilities, and limitations were highlighted and procedures for interacting and working with the agencies were discussed and illustrated.

Attendees reviewed and analyzed numerous current aircraft incident case studies from FAA and NTSB reports to pinpoint problems encountered and lessons learned. They toured the airport and walked through selected aircraft.

Each day participants were divided into small groups, and representatives from attending agencies integrated with the groups, rotating on a daily basis. The groups were asked to address a variety of realistic aircraft incidents that involved passenger and cargo aircraft, on-airport low-impact crashes, off-airport high-impact crashes, water, interior fires, explosive devices, military aircraft, and hazardous materials. Each group was required to identify and select the appropriate response agencies, resources, equipment, and actions necessary to mitigate the incident. Also, each group elected an incident commander, utilized an incident command system, and developed a joint and unified command structure. The groups alternately presented their solutions for critiquing by the entire audience. These team-building exercises were the catalyst for uniting all the participating agencies and individuals into an effective AIMS.

members of the Santa Barbara workshop get an up-dose familiarization with airport facilities and aircraft design.the final problem-solving exercise covers radio response times and transfer of command.the emergency operations center is established. Officers get a much better feel for effective radio communications with field commanders at remote sites.the Santa Barbara exercise unfolds.

Our belief that a proactive approach is needed for uniting those responsible for managing aircraft accidents was confirmed by the Santa Barbara and Charlotte programs. The first day’s problem-solving exercises in both cases were marked by confusion. The tendency was to try to manage the incident without enlisting the services of others in the group. This approach proved to be timeconsuming and nonproductive. Conversely, a dramatic change was evident in the final exercise—a complicated scenario complete with radio dispatch, realistic response time frames, unexpected events, and the establishment of an emergency operations center. The confidence and efficiency the participants displayed was a testimony to the program’s success. Role reversal became natural for participants who were able to “switch roles” from fire officer to airline manager to police officer to airport manager.

These programs were followed by a full-scale field aviation disaster exercise conducted and managed by workshop participants. Both field exercises went smoothly; they were well-directed and conducted in a cooperative, effective, and efficient manner. The communities of Santa Barbara and Charlotte had become united into an AIMS, and they should be commended for their commitment and effort.

No posts to display