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Emergency simulation exercise at O.R. Tambo International
Friday, March 12, 2004 | 00:00


Today, Wednesday 10 March 2004, Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) along with essential stakeholders conducted a full scale emergency simulation at O.R. Tambo International Airport (ORTIA). The simulation was conducted to achieve one goal – to put every unit involved in managing an air disaster to the test.

O R Tambo International Airport, along with all ACSA facilities, has a detailed and comprehensive emergency management system in place. According to South African Civil Aviation Authority legislation, as defined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), this system must be tested through a full-scale emergency simulation every two years. Exercise Fireball, ORTIA’s the last simulation, took place in March 2002.

Today’s exercise involved participants from no fewer than 10 different field including BA / Comair, Kempton Park Disaster Management, the Ekurhuleni Emergency Services, the Provincial Ambulance Service, the South African National Defence Force, the South African Police Service (SAPS), Metro Traffic, ACSA staff, members of the ACSA Clergy Service as well as an airport based cargo operator.

Emergency scenario

The exercise simulated the crash of a Boeing 727 aircraft. ORTIA’s Fire and Rescue Service went to great lengths to create the most realistic and authentic crash site possible. Kris Reddy, manager of the airport’s Fire and Rescue Service said the complicated and stressful atmosphere was vital to the exercise.

“To make an exercise of this nature worthwhile, we have to create an authentic environment that our emergency services may realistically have to face, in the event of an air disaster,” Reddy said.

“The flames, smoke traps and explosions are all factors they would potentially have to deal with, so we need to test their ability to perform under those difficult conditions,” he said.

The crash scenario was made more realistic with the use of fire, explosions and plenty of smoke. Controlled fires leapt around the aircraft and passengers while smoke bombs, as well as smoke bomb booby traps within the aircraft, kept emergency teams working within very realistic conditions. Members of the SAPS bomb squad rigged plastic explosives to mark the impact of the aircraft as well as a number of smaller explosions.

In the exercise, the aircraft had been carrying 100 passengers, in this case all members of the South African Police Service Training College in Pretoria. The 100 officers made themselves, as well as their luggage, available for the event. The volunteers were distributed within and around the aircraft amongst piles of luggage and unhinged and broken aircraft seats.

All passengers were clearly marked with injury tags to indicate the nature and extent of their injuries. The tagging system facilitated the triage process whereby patients were directed and transported according to the severity of their injuries. The triage tags were all ICAO compliant as set by the triage guidelines.

Ambulances, buses and helicopters were used to ferry the injured to hospitals around O R Tambo International Airport, ranging from the “walking wounded” to the very seriously injured.

SAPS and general security

During an emergency such as this simulation, ACSA Fire and Rescue work very closely with local emergency services, to manage the emergency systems. A crash site is, however, considered a crime scene so overall control of security rests with the SAPS.

Large numbers of police officers, security personnel and members of the South African National Defence Force were deployed during this exercise, to maintain the very highest security standards. In such an emergency, the SAPS plays a vital role in overall access control to the crime scene, assisting those parties who legitimately require access, as well as maintaining the integrity of the crime scene.

Part of this involves a pegging system whereby the location of the dead and injured is marked for later investigation. This pegging function falls within the ambit of the SAPS.

Another SAPS function is the location, marking and retrieval of the flight voice recorder, also known as the “black box”. Once the box has been located, SAPS investigators are tasked with marking its location, retrieving the box and handing it to the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for processing.

The purpose of the CAA investigation in the event of an accident, as described by Civil Aviation Regulations, is to determine the facts of an accident or incident in the interest of the promotion of aviation safety and the reduction of the risk of aviation accidents or incidents - and not to establish legal liability.

This close cooperation at a security level, by a variety of security service providers, is mirrored in the overall control of an air disaster at O R Tambo International Airport.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)

CAA investigators will attempt to arrive on the site of the accident as soon as possible while the emergency services have the initial task of emergency management and rescue.

Once the scene is secure, investigators then move in, to begin the on-site aspect of their investigation. The CAA does, however, also fulfil a vital function in terms of documentation of all the aspects that had set the scene for the operation that resulted from the accident situation.

The CAA’s focus remains the maintenance and constant improvement of safety levels of the aviation industry in South Africa.

Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality

Kempton Park, the suburb within which the airport is located, falls within the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Council that clearly holds the statutory responsibility for the airport. The complex nature of an airport and the specialised expertise required, however, makes the existing strong and counter supportive relationship between Ekurhuleni and ACSA, a vital cog in the emergency service management machine.

On-site morgue

Cargo operator, Grinrod Perishable Cargo, provided space for the creation of a temporary morgue housed within the operator’s refrigerated divisions.

“Meeters and Greeters” within the terminal

Within the terminal, another 100 SAPS members from the training college in Pretoria were on hand to fulfil the role of the friends, family and “meeters” who had gathered within the arrivals hall to meet passengers on the incoming flight. These groups were accommodated within The Premier Conference Centre in Terminal B, the domestic terminal, where they primarily become the responsibility of the airline involved.

The airline follows a series of procedures to manage such a situation, reconciling “walking wounded” as well as linking the “meeters and greeters” to the passengers they had come to welcome.

Co-ordination point

In the event of a catastrophic air disaster, all emergency management services will be run from the Crisis Control Point (CCP) at O R Tambo International Airport’s Joint Operations Centre. All information is channelled through that point to the correct authorities. All major aviation role-players within the airport are represented in that CCP.

Managing the Airspace: ATNS

During any critical emergency at an airport, the bulk of the attention will obviously be afforded to the crisis at hand. However, remaining air traffic within South African airspace and beyond could be directly or indirectly affected by this emergency and would still have to be accommodated.

It is here that the Air Traffic and Navigation Services Company (ATNS) play an essential role. As the emergency situation has primarily a local impact, the situation will also affect all other arriving, departing and en-route air traffic around the country that will be running according to normal schedules involving that airport. This would mean that air traffic will still be arriving from various departure points for landing at the affected airport, along with other traffic wishing to depart (for both local and international arrivals and departures).

As ATNS is responsible for the safe, orderly, expeditious and efficient flow of air traffic, ATNS would make every attempt to engineer the least disruption to all airline operators at the airport in question as well as in the greater airspace. The airspace will continue to be managed and all relevant air traffic management community members would be thoroughly briefed on the measures taken to ensure minimal disruption (this will include inter alia any delays and/or flow restrictions that may have to be put in place).

Naturally, each situation is unique and will most certainly determine the best course of action that will be taken to continue ensuring the safe and orderly movement of all air traffic.

Together with ATNS’s direct partners, the service would ensure that the safest and least disruptive measures would be implemented during the period of an emergency.  

Operation SWOT debrief

As is standard practise after such a simulation, a full debrief and evaluation session will take place at O R Tambo International Airport, within a week of the exercise. The debrief session will identify strengths and weaknesses to ensure our emergency management system may be enhanced and developed as a result of this exercise.

Bongani Maseko, General Manager of ORTIA, said he was pleased with the commitment shown by all airport stakeholders throughout Operation SWOT.

“We’ve seen key role-players pulling together today to test our systems and ensure we are in line with world standards in terms of our emergency management systems,” he said.

“The debrief sessions that will follow Operation SWOT are a valuable tool in assessing our performance to see not only where systems have worked but also where we can improve and strengthen as an airport community,” Maseko said.


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