As we all know, no structure or organization is exempt from being affected in the middle of a health crisis or a natural disaster. In the case of airports, there is also the addition of other potential emergencies - such as air accidents, structural fires, incidents with hazardous materials or terrorist acts, among others.
Each year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires certified airports to conduct at least one safety drill exercise a year focused on one of the nine emergency situations provided by them, in order to review the airport’s protocols in the event of an unforeseen event. At the SJU Airport, in addition to complying with the mandatory annual drill, we also add a second drill each year in order to make sure that we have everything ready to face an emergency.
“For several years we have been increasing the quantity, quality and intensity of the safety drills we conduct annually to improve and provide the airport community with a safer airport capable of responding to emergency situations,” explained Erick N. Gracia-Galiano, Response Manager to Aerostar Emergencies.
On October 29, 2020, the SJU Airport Emergency Management team coordinated a safety drill that involved all parties that would need to take action if an emergency occurs, in this case, an earthquake. “The exercise included the different areas of the Airport (all the departments that have an important role in responding to an emergency). We also have the aid of state, federal, non-profit and private agencies that give us support during emergencies,” added Gracia-Galiano.
Challenges amid the pandemic
On this occasion, the drill represented an additional challenge, since contrary to how they are normally carried out - (all personnel are usually summoned for half a day in a designated area at the airport) - it had to be adjusted to the new reality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These exercises are generally done in person: We use a large room divided into parts. However, with the pandemic, the planning meetings that we previously held in person were held virtually through Microsoft Teams. After training all of our personnel, we managed to take the exercise to the virtual plane in an efficient way for the first time ever. So far, I have not seen other airports that have performed a functional safety drill on the same scale that we did. In our entire region, we are the only ones that have managed to carry out a functional safety drill at that level,” described the Emergency Response manager.
Gracia-Galiano stated that the main objectives of the exercise were achieved:
Establish 100% of the Aerostar emergency response team within 45 minutes of notification of the emergency following the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
“Lifelines” were included in the exercise — lifelines are seven specific points that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides in order to stabilize an incident and save as many lives as possible. If the requirements of each “Lifeline” are met, the incident can be stabilized and allows you to focus on recovery more effectively. This was the first time that the "Lifelines" were integrated in a virtual exercise.
Another objective was to work on the environmental impact and guarantee the safety of employees, passengers, and responders. It was possible to maintain the efficiency that had been achieved in previous years.
For the first time ever, there was support for the communications plan, such as social networks, etc. The efficiency and quality of information provided to external media was improved.
However, the purpose of these exercises is not necessarily that everything goes well. In the words of the emergency management expert, the goal is "to find where the faults are in order to improve them."
“In this sense, we were able to identify areas for improvement and others in which the standard must be maintained. We now have an agenda for next year, where we will establish those points and are working on evolving them constantly. The vast majority of our teams are working to improve our plans this year, so that next year we are aligned,” he said.
After reflecting on the exercise which involved representatives from the entire airport community, Gracia-Galiano stated that the biggest lesson has been to see the fruit of constant learning. “Four years ago, the real response to a disaster would be chaos in the first 45 minutes to an hour. But, during the past years, we have invested time, effort and resources in training our personnel in order to reduce that chaos by focusing on a more effective and organized response. We are definitely better prepared to offer our passengers, partners and the airport community a safer airport,” he concluded.