Millions of passengers transit through airports around the world every day. Through any moderately important airport, tens of thousands of passengers pass through, and can even reach up to hundreds of thousands at peak hours. This scenario should also include the hundreds of thousands of workers who work at airport facilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
An emergency situation requiring evacuation of so many people poses a challenge from an architectural, engineering and management perspective. From architectural design to engineering aspects, evacuation routes and exits must comply with the various regulations addressing these more technical aspects. Capacities according to IATA, evacuation route distances and height differences, sizing and functionality of evacuation elements, emergency lighting and signaling system, alarm installations and pre-recorded public address systems, outdoor muster areas or meeting points, evacuation of people with reduced mobility, among others must be adequate to guarantee the success of the evacuation of an airport. In other words, “everything must be properly designed and functionally correct”.
Appropriate architecture, engineering and management criteria make airport evacuation plans more detailed and effective every day.
As a general rule, two of these three aspects coexist efficiently, by adapting the necessary means of evacuation to the capacity of passengers, users and workers. Not so the management aspect of the evacuation. When talking about evacuation management, we refer to three aspects that give a meaning to it: coordination, organization and control, thus becoming the aspects that must be managed before and during the evacuation process itself. Proper evacuation management avoids two of the most common risks in any evacuation; the stampede effect and the entrapment effect.
The stampede effect occurs when people who initiate an evacuation move erratically to an exit, either because they follow others, based on the unconscious belief that said others know where to exit, or because said exit coincides with the access route to the area from which now people want to leave. It is something very human and natural to go out from where we have come in, but in an emergency situation, that exit may not be the most appropriate.
The entrapment effect occurs when the “supposed” evacuation exits are not functionally operational, generating the entrapment of all those who try to exit from there. The volume of people concentrated there can be so high that collective panic creates an “immovable mass” that is unable to back up. For all these reasons, correctly managing an evacuation is of vital importance to avoid these two risk situations, which are sometimes the great generators of victims.
An evacuation must be coordinated and organized before the start of the evacuation. Avoiding triggering of the evacuation alarm or siren before having coordinated and organized the evacuation is essential to correctly manage the evacuation of people, especially those who are not familiar with airport facilities, such as passengers and users.
Likewise, having an Evacuation Team such as the Airport’s Internal Emergency Team, is another aspect of vital importance, its quantity and quality being two of the key factors to guarantee the success of the evacuation. When speaking of quantity, we mean that the evacuation teams must be sufficient to respond to such a high number of passengers passing through an area of the airport at any given time. These evacuation teams must not only consist of airport or similar workers, such as the different passenger service agents, FFCCSE, security guards, airline handling and ticket counter personnel and PRM services, but also all those workers who are part of companies called “tenants”.
Including all the workers of these companies is not a dogmatic criterion or an objective to be pursued from an operational and functional standpoint. Thus, the question arises: what is the selection criteria? The criteria for selecting workers of tenant companies who will be a part of the Evacuation Team integrated in the Airport will be determined by the need inferred by the tenant company’s own emergency or self-protection plan. In other words, depending on the tenant’s activity, their own emergency or self-protection plan will define the need or not to have their own evacuation team. If so, the tenant’s evacuation team must be integrated into the airport’s evacuation processes, since ultimately, the evacuation will be carried out through the airport’s facilities. Catering companies that are not “just passing through”, companies that operate VIP lounges, shops or department stores and/or that have fitting rooms, companies that manage the car park, rental cars, etc. would be examples of tenant companies that should have evacuation teams integrated into the airport’s evacuation process.
In relation to quality, the evacuation teams, both internal and integrated, must be very well informed, educated and trained to adequately manage the evacuation procedures established by the airport. Aspects such as collective panic control to even the manual opening of all types of doors marked as exits and evacuation routes, are premises of vital importance. This information and theoretical/practical training must be delivered directly by the airport, training the evacuation teams and familiarizing them therewith, by conducting their respective partial or general evacuation drills at the terminals.
Another aspect related to evacuation management is determining the direction of evacuation to be followed, either to the air side or to the land side. Evacuating passengers who have already passed through the respective security controls from the air side to the land side is a real setback if the emergency causing the evacuation ends up being a false alarm.
Last but not least is the evacuation of workers. Although it is an equally important objective, it entails simply informing them of the evacuation procedures established by the airport once the notice to evacuate a partial or general area of the airport is issued. Familiarization by workers with emergency exits, evacuation routes and evacuation procedures established by the airport is a requirement that is expected of each one of them.
Fortunately, the vast majority of airports around the world have adequate and up-to-date evacuation plans that allow millions of people circulating daily through them to be sure that any incident will be dealt with reliably.