Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Disaster from above - aircraft emergencies

You know it's bad when the 911 lines jam your switchboard. Callers are frantic, send help now! A plane has gone down. The helicopter has crashed. The jet is in the river.

Large metropolitan areas have annual disaster drills. There was a time when many of those exercises consisted of simulated commercial airliner crashes. Since 9-11, many regional disaster coordinators ahve changed their focus to terrorist attacks. Those drills now consist of hazardous chemical (dirty bombs) spills. The reality of a large plane going down, commercial or freight, is always a possibility. The more likely scenario would an incident involving the smaller private plane or helicopter.

Look up and you'll see planes overhead, same goes for helicopters. We've become used to the site of the metal birds soaring in the skies. We forget about the craft, until we need to take a ride or until one comes falling in to our backyard.

What should a Public Safety Telecommunicator do to prepare in advance to handle said incident? As with any type of call, start with your agency's policies & procedures. Large departments, or departments with airports within their jurisdictions, should have set procedures in place. If not, then the County disaster plan should cover an event, at least it should to handle mass casualties of a major event. Does your Communications Center have a policy for a major incident? What about the fire department? Read the documentation.

With any emergency call, follow the basic information as with any other type of in-progress incident. Where did the plane(s) go down? Did the planes crash in to a field, a building, or a body of water? Is it on fire? Is anyone trapped or hurt? What about a second plane (if a second one was involved). Is the aircraft involved a fixed wing or rotor. Helicopters are very common now. For instance, in Las Vegas (NV), can be flown for medical use, law enforcement, the media, tourists, military, or contractors to move large products.

Remember to assure the RPs, for there will be multiple callers, that help is being dispatched. Try to get names and numbers of callers if you can, which will help investigators later on. 

If you receive a call from a passenger or crew member aboard an aircraft reporting an in-flight emergency, here are some tips (thanks to Arlington County - VA- Public Safety) and the FAA.

Try to get as much as much information as you can, including:

  • What's the name of the airline carrier the person is aboard (Southwest, Delta, etc)?
  • What's the flight number?
  • Where did the flight last depart from?
  • What is the next destination of the flight?
  • Where is the plane located now (i.e. approaching Baltimore, left Las Vegas 30 minutes ago, headed for Boulder, etc)?
  • What's the caller's name?
  • What seat are they in (17-c, 29-f, etc.)?
  • Are they calling from a wireless/cellular phone or an onboard telephone?
  • If a wireless telephone, what is the phone number?
  • What is the wireless carrier (At&T, T-Mobile, etc.)?
  • What is the onboard emergency?
  • If a crime is the problem, try to get suspect(s) descriptions as per your regular policy including any weapons
After you get as much information as you can, the telecommunicator should notify the FAA, the FBI, and other authorities as  determined by your Communications Center policy.

Below are a few examples of aircraft incident calls.

The US Air flight that went down in to the Hudson River is included. Listen to how the dispatch personnel handle the callers, again for learning purposes. The callers are relatively calm.

This call is a recording mid-air collision of two small planes

This 911 call originated from a passenger of the plane crash

This caller is reprting a helicopter crash, but has an accent

How would you have handled these calls? Would you have done anything differently? Do you have the FAA number readily available? What of that to your local airport? The tower or the airport police?

Don't wait until you need the information.

Until next time, stay safe out there!

Doug, get us some good picks Friday!
Go Sharks!

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