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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

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Alert24 - Safeguard Update

Lessons from airport earthquake response

Lessons from airport earthquake response
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New Zealand

The advice is to expect the unexpected, but the destruction of Christchurch International Airport's emergency operations centre came as a nasty surprise in the region's first big earthquake in September last year. Ford Robertson, the airport's manager of quality and security, revealed the unfortunate failure at the Conferenz Business Continuity Management and Disaster Recovery conference in Wellington.

Robertson said the emergency operations centre had ironically been one of the first casualties of the earthquake. Located on the fourth floor of the airport building, it was left unusable after its ceiling collapsed. "We say to expect the unexpected, but we never thought the emergency response centre would not be able to be used." Instead the EOC had to set up a temporary operations centre at the airport's rescue fire service station. "The room was quite small, so it was a tight operation." The ground level space has now become the permanent location of the EOC, as it best fits its purposes, Robertson added.

Following the problems with the EOC the airport assembled "go-bags" with their own dedicated cellphone, contact details, check lists, equipment and hi-visibility vests with various titles like incident controller, operations coordinator, logistics coordinator and media coordinator. "That meant when people took over those roles at handovers they were immediately ready to go."

In his presentation "How Christchurch Airport bounced back from the earthquake" Roberston also revealed what not many have known - that for a short period New Zealand's air space was uncontrolled. The radar centre of Airways New Zealand had to be evacuated and until the back-up radar centre was activated in Auckland all commercial flights were grounded. Airborne aircraft were left under the control of local airport control towers and any aircraft inbound to Christchurch were diverted.

Robertson said because the September quake hit at 4am there had not been many people around, with just a couple of scheduled departing flights. Some passengers ran out of the building, and others tried to seek shelter. Suspended ceilings in the newly completed airport administration offices collapsed, and fluorescent tube lighting fell down. A 40kg lighting fixture in the reception area dropped to the ground.

"If anyone had been inside there would easily have been some serious injuries, or maybe even a death."

A header tank of water above the airport administration office's security computer server toppled and drenched the area below.
As a result the building was left completely unlocked. "We lost all its security."

Then came this year's February earthquake. That day there were well over 1000 people at the airport, including passengers, general public, staff and 300 construction workers building the new terminal.

A huge number of people had to be evacuated from the terminal, and despite the time of year it was starting to drizzle and becoming cold. A nearby hotel took in 400 passengers and a campervan company provided its vehicles in the hotel car park to provide shelter. "There were hundreds of tourists with no accommodation ... and later those from the city centre who'd had to leave their belongings behind in hotel rooms."

Robertson said a crisis management team was quickly formed to figure out the immediate priorities. First was to check the runways so the airport could reopen to allow emergency services to fly in. The structural integrity of the runways were checked using special equipment to profile them for undulations. Fuel lines and navigation aids also had to be checked. "The pressure to re-open was immense."

The first flights in were emergency flights followed by a constant stream of personnel and equipment from urban search and rescue teams, civil defence, the military, police, medics and politicians. "All the available air ambulance services in the South Island were being used and a large proportion of private helicopters." A senior search and rescue expert later told the airport CEO that having the airport opened so fast probably helped save about 30 lives.

Robertson said communication was paramount. "Communication is a crucial element in crisis management. You need to know what information to get out there and have the right people in the right places." The telecommunication networks quickly became overloaded, with landlines and cellphones starting to fail. Fortunately the airport had its own emergency power generation, deep artesian wells and was self sufficient. The staff had satellite phones and "good old-fashioned walkie-talkies," he said. "Those units were a godsend for us and allowed us to open an emergency channel, and easily establish communications with all our stakeholders like airlines and government agencies."

The crisis team set up hourly briefings to stakeholders to advise them of the airport status, and enable essential services to get in. "We tried to be honest and open and were careful not to make any promises." Robertson said media communications were challenging to manage, requiring two fulltime people on the job. "We also checked what was reported to make sure the content was accurate." It was also crucial to keep the airport website updated.

The airport had to figure out how much damage it had suffered and how to respond to it. Fortunately the terminals were only damaged superficially, not structurally.

The next major challenge was to get people out of Christchurch. "We had everyone trying to get out of Dodge ... the next morning we had literally thousands of people sitting outside wanting to get flights out. Fortunately they were orderly, patient and didn't mind being herded."

Robertson said many were displaced and effectively homeless. Dozens of foreign travellers had lost their passports, money and travel tickets. The Red Cross quickly set up a support centre at the local school where buses transported stranded passengers, and blankets and fruit were handed out to the hundreds that chose to sleep in the terminal. Tens of thousands of passengers were flown out of Christchurch in the week after the earthquake.

Robertson stressed that a crisis of this magnitude does not stop after a few days, but can go on for weeks. It was important to roster for prolonged crisis management and all the shift work that entailed. Contingency plans must be in place so anyone put on the spot can make a decision and pick up and run with it. "And don't underestimate the short and long term effects on your staff, and the effect on their families."

He also could not over-emphasise training. "You must deliberately practice for a disaster, and get someone to critique how the exercise is run - they can pick up small points you miss." The exercise should 'feel' real, so much so that when you walk out of the emergency operations room you are expecting to see evidence of the disaster you have just been part of.

Robertson said airports already train for disasters, but they are usually all based around a plane crash. At Christchurch there is a physical exercise one year and a desktop exercise the next. "So we are fairly well prepared ... and if we had not carried out a simulation for a hangar fire, our response to the first earthquake would have been wanting."

Organisations Mentioned:
Christchurch Airport
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From Alert24 - Safeguard Update

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