Fire Fighting in Canada

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The status of airport security

Editor’s note: Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King interviewed Fire Chief Brian Hicks, manager of Safety and Airside Operations at the Gander International Airport Authority, during the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services conference in June. Here is Hicks’ account of 9-11.

September 7, 2011 
By Brian Hicks as told to Laura King

Editor’s note: Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King interviewed Fire Chief Brian Hicks, manager of Safety and Airside Operations at the Gander International Airport Authority, during the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services conference in June. Here is Hicks’ account of 9-11.

I was a firefighter at the time; I wasn’t in a management role. I was working night shifts so I was up and I was watching TV . . . and suddenly you hear about a plane crash in New York City and, of course, being in the aviation business for so long, when there’s a plane crash you say, OK, what caused it, how’s the weather . . . you’re going through a mental checklist, because we deal with aircraft emergencies all the time here, and there was nothing; the weather was clear, the skies were good and there were no mechanical issues reported with the aircraft.

Fire Chief Brian Hicks of Gander International Airport sits inside the Emergency Co-ordination Centre, where sticky notes tracking the 38 planes that landed on 9-11 are still on the wall.


But something wasn’t right, especially when an aircraft hits one of the Twin Towers. It didn’t make any sense, so, of course, that piqued my interest even more, so I called the firehall at the airport and I was talking to the shift that was working that day, and as I was talking to them, the second airplane hit. So then we knew it was an unusual event and that we probably would feel ramifications from it here in Gander, because probably 70 to 80 per cent of all air traffic going across the North Atlantic is probably within an hour and a half diversion from Gander. All the flight paths going over to Europe and back are based on the jet stream, and usually they try to get a tail wind on the way over to Europe and avoid the headwind on the way back, so normally it’s north or south, or directly overhead of the island, so there’s about 1,000 flights a day going over and back.


So, we knew there was going to be some issue; we had felt it before with Skylab, when it came in through the atmosphere and ended up in the Arctic they shut airspace down, so we had a lot of diversions. Even when we get weather on the eastern seaboard and JFK and Philly and these airports get closed, we have diversions here for fuel, so we feel some of the effects.

So, there was airspace closure, and we knew they were going to start landing aircraft here. We ramped up our staff as best we could – it’s hard to react to a mass diversion like that because nobody really plans for that. In my emergency procedures manual, we plan for all kinds of emergency procedures – crashes, hijacking, hostages, all that stuff – but nobody really planned for mass diversion because it just wasn’t an emergency people were thinking about; and then, of course, our management staff and our emergency co-ordination centre was activated, and then we had to think about how we were going to land these airplanes, because you had to have an operational runway, and nobody really knew how many aircraft we were going to end up with, so then we had to come into parking and taxiing procedures . . . and maintain an active runway.

We’re lucky we have two runways here – one is very long, it’s 10,200 feet, and the other is 8,900-feet long – so, of course, you didn’t want to close your long runway down. A lot of these aircraft weren’t planning to divert so, therefore, they had to reduce their landing weights, so they had to dump fuel, or land a bit heavier than they normally would; most of them dumped fuel but if you have a heavy landing you can have hot brakes, and it creates other issues. But everything landed without any problems.

There were 38 heavy airplanes . . . you do your planning, you implement your emergency procedures, call out your additional staff, open up the emergency co-ordination centre, and we had various members of our staff who were on the road and their flights were cancelled and airspace was closed, and they had to drive home. Our CEO was actually out of town and he had to drive home, from the mainland, so it was a challenge for people to get back.

The air traffic landed and I came in on night shift and it was eerily strange because the airspace was closed. At airports, you’re used to planes taking off and landing and you come to work and it’s a big parking lot. I got into work that night at six in the evening and I got briefed. We had a guy manning the phones because we were getting phone calls from families of all the passengers, from Italy, from all over the world, because people were in a panic about their loved ones – they didn’t know if they were safe, didn’t know where they were, and somehow our phone numbers . . . people got a hold of phone numbers and that created some issues . . .

Most of that shift I spent going around delivering meds. Think about it – you’ve got people on an airplane, their bags are in the belly of the aircraft, they can’t get to their insulin, they can’t get to their  heart medication, they can’t get to any other prescription drugs that they require, and we had no idea when we were going to get the passengers off the aircrafts and release the bags so they could access them. So the local pharmacies all ramped up and worked long, long hours to and we went delivering meds to the aircraft.

When we boarded the airplanes we didn’t really speak very much about what had occurred, because we didn’t want to incite panic on the flights. Passengers knew the aircraft were diverted to Gander but they didn’t necessarily know the whole story. You wanted a calm, quiet situation on the airplanes, you didn’t want people in a bit of a panic. They knew it was a security incident. They knew airspace was closed down. The captains of various airplanes, we didn’t know to what extent they knew what was going on. Some passengers were on the planes for 10 to 12 hours. Once they got off the airplanes the challenge was you’ve got to house them, you’ve got to feed them, you had to get their bags to them, and you had to determine if there were any security issues with the people on board the airplanes. It was a real challenge for everybody in the security world – the RCMP    and customs – to determine if there were any threats on board these airplanes.

Once they deplaned they had to go through the security procedure and check the hand luggage but they didn’t get their suitcases. So, basically, what they had on the airplane is what they took with them downtown.

Procedures have changed. Everybody has been educated. The thing with emergencies is that you have to be very resourceful. You have to know your area and know what you can use. The military had to fly in cots – so there is a cache of cots around here now. We are certainly more prepared now that we were when it occurred. I think it would still take the efforts of all the people who were involved in the beginning, and it would still be a huge challenge.

Gander has 10,000 people and we had 6,800 passengers so you’re talking a tremendous increase in population. RCMP, customs – all these people have more procedures and things have changed tremendously since it occurred; sharing of information is a lot better. CBSA [customs] – their role has certainly changed, from duties being paid on cigarettes to a much broader horizon now for border security and more intelligence. The world certainly has changed. And security has increased on aircraft, so there is a tremendous difference.

As for the fire department – not much has changed for us. We still respond to emergencies like we always did but there’s no real change to our equipment or personnel, other than that our mindset has changed. When we get diversions now – we always worried about the safety and security of people on board but now there’s a security component that’s in the back of your mind, even if you have sick passengers coming in you ask, is this legit or not? Your mindset has changed, procedures have changed, but firefighters are still firefighters, we go to work and do a job every day. 

With mass diversions, the problem with airports is that the winds change, so we can’t say that we’re always going to use this particular area for parking [aircraft] because we don’t know what we’re going to do because it’s based on operations at that particular point in time. So, we might have a mass diversion and have 10 airplanes parked on the apron and if we have a mass diversion then those 10 airplanes will still be here. It’s not a straightforward procedure.

We know what we need to know, and all the agencies in the area know what they need to know. You can never have enough manpower and equipment to deal with that all the time, you have to ramp up to it. Even getting back to 9-11 – they pulled the school buses in here (they took them off strike – the school board bus drivers were on strike!). We had to get people off the airplanes – they were on the runways and all over the place, and they volunteered to come off the picket line and bring the school buses in.

The Town of Gander did a tremendous job accommodating people downtown. We were the arrival site and the departure site. After the first 24 hours, things were cleaned up at the airport other than that there were airplanes everywhere. And then, of course, for the departure we got busy again. People left the airport and went downtown. It was pretty quiet other than we still had all the bags and we had security everywhere, and we had maintenance people looking after the airplanes. We ensured that we had enough fuel at the airport to put back in the airplanes, because they had dumped their fuel so they needed fuel to get back.

One really interesting thing was that passengers who came in on these airplanes had to get back on the same airplanes and return to their points of departure. So we had Americans who came on, say, a British Airways flight out of Heathrow going to New York – they were supposed to get back on board that airplane and go back to Heathrow, to London. And they’re saying, “No, I’m not doing that,” so, if you don’t do it, then there’s a problem with their bags and there are a lot of security issues around that – not that there’s anything wrong with the person, but it’s just procedures. So there’s a lot of last-minute work that was done because passengers said, “No, I’m not getting back on board that flight . . .” You couldn’t really force them to get back on board, but if you think, from an American perspective, they were saying they weren’t getting back on board that flight because they didn’t know what their future was going to be, and “I’m not going to Europe, I want to go home to the United States of America – I want to go to my family . . .” They could be going to war.

So, they bought used cars, because you can get on the ferry and go across to Nova Scotia. Used-car sales went through the roof here, because people chipped in and bought a car and drove home. Put yourself in those people’s shoes – would you want to go back to Europe again? They wanted to go home.

But it all worked out, you know. And the passengers were fantastic to deal with. Some of them were scared, now knowing, it was hard to get phone lines . . . Aliant here, the local phone company, put out banks of phones on tables in front of their offices, just tables and tables of phones for people to use . . . and I got off shift that morning and going home I was on my motorcycle and there were people everywhere, just sitting on people’s lawns . . . it was very surreal, a really strange feeling. And I got home in the driveway and my wife told me she was pregnant, and I couldn’t help but think . . . I was happy but what’s this child going to be brought into? I was happy, but I was concerned.

Here at the airport we had a very narrow field of vision because we’re focused on planes and passengers. Downtown there was a whole humanitarian thing with clothing, accommodations, transportation, and just being their extended families . . . the whole region was fantastic.

I have three fire trucks that are on 24-7. I have eight permanent firefighters, and then I have six auxiliary firefighters (or equipment operators or mechanics), and of course we have a mutual-aid agreement with the Town of Gander and any time we have mock disaster exercises we always have them come up . . . The municipal fire departments are a great resource for us, and they have different resources too. The Town of Gander has structural responsibilities at the airport. The crash component – we do all that – but if we had a major air disaster we’re calling [Gander Fire Chief] David Brett really quick, and we’re a big diversion airport for North Atlantic traffic.

Our training component – it’s not training for mass diversion but we do train a lot for security issues. All of our mock disaster issues all have a security component now, and the security mindset is always hovering in the back of our minds now, no matter what we do.

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