Emergency management at Canada’s largest airport

Posted: 11 September 2006 | Deane Johanis, Manager – Emergency Planning, Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) | No comments yet

Toronto Pearson International Airport has been undergoing a metamorphosis over the past ten years, changing from a publicly funded and operated facility, to a privately funded and operated, state-of-the-art complex. Deane Johanis assesses the development of an emergency management program at an airport being built around an existing airport – one that has seen a 33 per cent passenger increase during a tumultuous period in terms of major emergencies.

Toronto Pearson International Airport has been undergoing a metamorphosis over the past ten years, changing from a publicly funded and operated facility, to a privately funded and operated, state-of-the-art complex. Deane Johanis assesses the development of an emergency management program at an airport being built around an existing airport – one that has seen a 33 per cent passenger increase during a tumultuous period in terms of major emergencies.

Some of the more notable elements of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority’s (GTAA) Airport Development Program, in keeping with its mission statement “to create an airport system that contributes aggressively to the region’s economic development”, were in the pre-amble work to the new Terminal 1 building, which features a multi-level garage and an inter-modal elevated rail transit link.

These new infrastructure elements followed the initial purchasing of those portions of the airport not under the control of the Airport Authority, in order to facilitate groundside access and redevelopment efforts. This established an airport Operating Area: the key to the noise management strategy, the issuance of airport operating rules and regulations and the setting of tenant improvements guidelines. Having set the groundwork, the Airport Development Program undertook work in the four components of terminals, airside, groundside and support services, consisting of: the relocation of the entire cargo area to a new Infield Industrial Park, complete with a new Control Tower and Infield Terminal satellite; the building of two new runways and numerous apron and taxiway adjustments; new emergency support areas, such as two fire halls, a police station, an airport emergency support centre and upgraded airport operations control centre; a complete overhaul of the communications and technological environment to a common-use approach; the demolition of the old Administration Building, the two older Terminal buildings and expansion of the newest existing Terminal; and finally a new three-tier groundside roadway network.

At the height of the expansion program, it became a bit of local humour that you should not expect to leave the airport property via the same road that you came in on, such was the speed of construction. As can be imagined, maintaining current knowledge of theses changes as an operational tenant or as an emergency response agency became challenging and required a creative approach on the part of the Airport Authority to making available the right information in a timely fashion.

Other elements to be incorporated in this information exchange were those resulting from new safety, security, public health and emergency legislation, coupled with the evolution of emergency management, itself coming into its own as an industry. In Canada, the Canadian Standard Association Technical Committee on the development of emergency management and business continuity standards, in which Pearson Airport participates, aims to consolidate best codes of practice with public and private industry. Lessons learned from world events with significant life safety, environmental and cross-jurisdictional impacts have considerably changed the emergency management landscape and shown the need for more cohesive and comprehensive approaches in the handling of future events. The simultaneous impact of the SARS public health and ensuing economic crisis on such geographically disparate countries as China and Canada, the work on the International Health Regulations and the current, increased worldwide monitoring in anticipation of the next pandemic are an example of this expanded approach.

Further adding to the mix were the significant challenges and major re-alignments taking place in the aviation industry. With many airlines at different times during this period either in bankruptcy protection, merged or in another altered state, increased passenger expectations as to customer service, safety and security still existed. As an example, passenger crisis support during a major event has been broadened to include the families of air disaster victims, following some highly publicised shortcomings in the aftermaths of aircraft crashes around the world. In the US, this led to legislated obligations to passengers, crew and their families on the part of the government, as well as that of air carriers, domestic and foreign flying into US airspace. In effect, this legislation has made that level of service a de facto standard for many of the world’s airlines.

Clearly time for a change in approach…

Redefining the Emergency Management Program Approach

How, then, is an Airport Authority to tie into an overall emergency program the significant levels of service, regulatory and management standards, as well as physical changes, in a cohesive package for all stakeholders? By strengthening stakeholder relationships in the overall community – one of the GTAA’s stated strategic objectives – with the use of awareness, training and exercise programs, it can achieve the promotion of the overall program infrastructure, while highlighting the local particularities of the emergency plans, procedures and available tools.

One of the local particularities of the airport emergency program in Toronto includes a group of non-traditional airport support services that complement the more traditional emergency response services. These are referred to as the Pearson People Teams, consisting of the GTAA GO Team, Pearson Crisis Support Team and Pearson Family Support Team.

The GTAA GO Team is an irregular operations support team, originally based on the FEMA CERT concept (Civilian Emergency Response Teams) initiated in the US in areas of high risk. The concept is based around groups of volunteer civilians acquiring sufficient first response knowledge through a modular certification process, in order to safely provide basic support in their own communities until emergency professionals can reach the scene.

The development of the Pearson Team in the mid-90’s followed the introduction of the US Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act and a particularly interruptive winter season. The composition of the Team is non-operational, non-union GTAA employees trained to provide surge capacity to operational Airport Authority employees in support of airlines, tenants and the travelling public during irregular or operational emergency situations. They serve on a volunteer participation basis but a remuneration formula has been developed that recognises contributions in excess of a regular shift. It is hoped that the program will eventually broaden its base to include union personnel and ideally, to broaden the concept to an airport-wide one, similar to the Aéroports de Paris’ approach. Team members are expected to attend no more than two training sessions over a given year and to provide their availability and emergency contact information. Should there be a senior management decision made that requires their contribution, they are instructed to meet at a pre-designated location where they are given a preliminary briefing, a vest identifying them as representatives of the Airport Authority, a means of mobile communication and handouts as required. Volunteers are then transported to a drop-off point where they are met by the responsible operational staff and provided with their assignments. Non-operational personnel delight in being part of the operational scene and there is no shortage of volunteers.

Pearson Crisis Support Team, one of the longest standing teams in Canada and in place since 1989, was originally developed by the Airport Authority to support emergency workers in the aftermath of a major aircraft crash. It adopted a then unique, multi-agency format that incorporated mental health, emergency and airport professionals selected from contributing airport response agencies, hospitals, faith groups, airlines, airport tenants and the more traditional fire, police, ambulance responder agencies. The composition of this Team allows for direct networking with the member agencies’ internal support teams, for a broader community-representative support group.

All team members are volunteers, with the exception of a paid Clinical Director responsible for clinical training and crisis mental health direction. The Team is coordinated by an Administrative Director (Manager, Emergency Planning) responsible for administrative direction and resourcing the team. Team members are expected to obtain their agency’s approval for participation to ensure community support as well as on-the-job status when responding to airport incidents. Over the years, the Team has amended its structure to allow for smaller crisis event response as a way to participate with the community on an ongoing basis, to practice support and consultation skills and to maintain the profile of the Team within the community.

Each Team member is expected to make a minimum 2 year commitment to the Team, contribute a half-day every other month for skills update training, participate in one exercise every year, be on a standby on-duty roster on a cyclical basis and become certified. For several years, the Clinical Director was a university professor who headed a research program with a strong focus on traumatic stress and emergency professionals. Through a partnership with the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, the Team was able to participate in a number of research projects, thus helping to advance the understanding of traumatic stress in emergency professionals, their families and the larger organisations. Additionally, the research formed the basis for an evidenced based approach to team training and selection of intervention methods. This also ultimately led to a partnership between the Greater Toronto Airports Authority and the University of Toronto in the development of a 6 module Certificate Program in Crisis Response to Workplace Trauma and Disaster. The program is intended for mental health and emergency professionals who wish to obtain intensive knowledge about workplace and disaster interventions.

Pearson Family Support Team was launched in Toronto, 1999, in recognition of the need for prompt coordination of support to families and friends in the first few days of a major aircraft event, until the full Air Carrier’s Care Team is assembled and deployed to the accident airport; the Airport Authority was in the best position to make that happen.

This Team is composed of existing Airport Authority Terminal Operations personnel that are specially trained in crisis support by the Clinical Director from the Pearson Crisis Support Team and in logistics support by the Administrative Director. This ensures continuity between the People Teams on the Airport. Anchoring this Team with the use of personnel that are specialists in the Terminal buildings and that are used to working with the Airport’s GO Team allows a significant amount of synergy in the logistical elements required in setting up the necessary holding areas for gathering families and friends, supporting uninjured passengers and establishing the Family Support and Reconciliation Centres. This logistical base is supplemented by: 1) contracted community mental health professionals retained by the Airport (and who are currently the same as the EAP service provider); 2) existing Airport Chapel personnel from the three on-airport chapels in their standard pastoral role, combined with external multi-faith leaders from the Ontario Multi-Faith Council, for those faiths not commonly represented on the airport and with which a coordinated volunteer protocol has been developed; and finally 3) the participation of existing on-airport Medical Clinic staff, which completes the collaborative model coordinated by the Airport Authority’s Emergency Planning group for family support. Notable during the August 2005 Toronto Air France incident, was the effectiveness of this combined support network made available via the People Teams to supplement the Airport’s strong emergency response.

Another particularity of the Pearson Airport Emergency Program is in the aggressiveness of its exercise program. The annual requirement is mandated by the Board of Directors and includes a schedule of one full scale, ten partial deployments and six tabletop exercises. This level of activity requires an ongoing commitment on the part of the core participating agencies – airport, emergency response and emergency management agencies from on airport and surrounding communities – achieved via a monthly Exercise Planning Committee. This group manages exercise requests for optimum content, participation and timing and ensures tracking of the resulting recommendations. A monthly Emergency Response Coordination Committee is co-held, which highlights any change in the airport infrastructure that could impact emergency preparedness and response. Plans for training the community in any of the reported changes and for the development of the resulting array of blended learning solutions and communication tools are coordinated via this well-established group.

The year 2007 should see the completion of the bulk of the construction program, putting the GTAA in the position of ‘operating a premier airport’ and into a period of relative stability in terms of the overall operating plant.

As to the future direction of the airport’s emergency program, consistent with the GTAA’s strategic objective of ‘providing industry leadership in business practices’, the current push is on both the implementation of the airport’s Air France 358 Task Force Report recommendations and the development of continuity models that would allow for ongoing operation during periods of major disruption, concurrent with the development of pandemic related plans. To foster continued relationship building, the GTAA will continue to host the Annual Airport Disaster Management Conference, held in November, to focus on the Air Carrier specific Training Program and look forward to new tools, such as the introduction of the expanded Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute and its expanded capacity for fire program related training.

The work of the past ten years now allows the Airport Authority to move from the construction of, to the management and operation of the new Toronto Pearson International Airport. As in the name of the 2005 Annual Report, Toronto Pearson is – ‘Positioned to Deliver’ an aviation system for the Greater Toronto region, the largest metropolitan area in Canada and one of North America’s fastest growing urban centres. Toronto Pearson is emerging as a significant major airport in North America with the capacity and facilities to accommodate the anticipated future growth in the industry. Enhancing access to regional and local markets, the airport supports the economic development of the Greater Toronto Area, the Province of Ontario and Canada.

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