Disaster Preparedness Is Ongoing At Airport


    GRAND RAPIDS — Just like any large commercial airport, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes planning and preparation for disaster response and recovery at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

    The airport responds to certain types of aircraft alerts and emergencies with its own team consisting of airport police, fire, operations and maintenance personnel. Other types of emergencies, such as a biohazard incident, require the added support of local mutual aid agencies.

    “For a typical aircraft alert, we have all the fire suppression, aircraft entry and evacuation procedures, equipment and personnel to handle those situations,” said Bruce Schedlbauer, the airport’s manager of marketing and communications.

    A team of 15 firefighters and a chief are on duty around the clock and all of them are emergency medical technicians, so they also have medical response capability. The airport also has a mass casualty unit that carries medical response gear, in addition to its three fire trucks. Firefighters continually train, attend classes and respond to non-aircraft related calls at the airport, such as a car fire in the parking lot or a fuel spill.

    “What they respond to more than anything else are medical calls,” Schedlbauer explained. “When you have 5,000 passengers a day, 2,000 employees, and all the people who visit the airport daily to conduct business, pretty regularly we see everything from heart attacks, strokes and major diabetic reactions to the little things, like when someone falls and scrapes an elbow.”

    It’s a very self-contained operation, he noted, but if there’s an incident, or potential incident, of a larger scale, then the airport calls in Cascade, Kentwood and Grand Rapids first responders.

    There are three distinct security and law enforcement agencies at the airport that work in partnership. The first is a law enforcement unit with 15 deputized officers and a police chief employed by the county, Schedlbauer said. Airport police respond to alarms and emergencies in the terminal building and on airport grounds and are responsible for traffic enforcement and perimeter security.

    The airport also contracts with D&R Security, which provides terminal curb-front security and security oversight for the two gates that lead from public roadways to the airport grounds.

    Finally, at the federal level, there is the Transportation Security Administration team that’s responsible for all passenger and baggage screening prior to boarding aircraft.

    Neither TSA nor D&R personnel carry firearms and have no authority to detain or arrest individuals. They have to call airport police if they need law enforcement intervention, Schedlbauer added.

    The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial airports to conduct a live emergency drill every three years. Here, that effort includes all the airport’s first responders and operations team, area police and fire departments, local ambulance companies, hospitals, the multi-agency Kent County Emergency Medical Services, and the Red Cross.

    Schedlbauer said the scenario changes every time; it could be a simulated airplane crash on airport grounds or a nearby site, or the threat of a tornado, blizzard, major wind storm or other natural disaster. Last year, for instance, the drill involved responding to a grounded aircraft with a terrorist on board who was threatening to release a nerve agent.

    Every two years the airport picks another scenario and conducts a tabletop exercise, taking thorough note of who would be responsible for what in the event such a scenario were to play out.

    “We talk about command and control and who’s in charge, and what communication system will be used, such as phones or walkie-talkies,” Schedlbauer explained.

    “In 13 years I’ve been involved in a number of tabletops and four or so live drills. We sit down and do a debrief afterwards, and we always learn something. It’s a learning exercise, and we’ve always said that if the time comes that we’re not learning anything, then the scenario wasn’t hard enough or did not have enough variables.”

    Ford International’s disaster preparedness plan is a “living document” that’s continually updated and revised, Schedlbauer said. As infrastructure is added and changed at the airport, that adds different elements to the disaster response plan. For example, the airport will have to plan how to respond to a fire in the new 4,800-space parking ramp that is planned.    

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