Public Safety & Homeland Security

Inside SFO: A Tour of the Airport’s Safety Operations (VIDEO)

Emergency Management got a behind-the-scenes look at San Francisco International Airport’s EOC and security operations.

by / September 16, 2013
The crash-landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in July tested the response capabilities at San Francisco International Airport. Photo courtesy of APImages.com

On July 6, Asiana Flight 214 crash-landed at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO), resulting in three deaths and 181 injured passengers and crew members. The crash took place eight days after Emergency Management toured the airport for a story about its security operations. We’ve included follow-up comments, but the majority of the information was gleaned during the visit before the crash.

Asiana Flight 214 from Seoul, South Korea, slammed down on San Francisco International Airport runway 28L at approximately 11:27 a.m. By 11:30, the airport EOC had been activated, and by 11:35, emergency personnel were en route to the scene. It was a scenario that safety and security staff had trained for countless times, yet no one is ever sure how ready they’ll be when it happens.

“It’s still a bit surreal,” said Toshia Marshall, emergency planning coordinator for SFO, three weeks after the crash. “We responded and restored the airport’s operation as a team, just as we are working through the recovery process as a team.”

Marshall said the EOC immediately filled with staff from the Airport Commission and federal, state and local agencies, and within a few hours was occupied by San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee and his staff, the San Francisco fire and police chiefs, as well as others.

From the EOC’s standpoint, the response went down just as they had practiced it.

“We’ve concluded that the EOC functioned well and the right people were present to perform the necessary response roles as intended,” Marshall wrote in an email. “As we went along, we did develop other roles that were necessary for improving the communication with other airlines and tenants regarding the response and recovery efforts over the seven-day period that was impacted.”



Marshall said there will be a review of EOC operations, and several debriefing sessions are still to come.

The EOC is the hub from which a major event, such as a plane crash, is monitored, intelligence gleaned and decisions made in what essentially becomes the command center.

The airport is equipped with more than 2,000 cameras, any of which can be called up for view within the EOC, Marshall said during our visit. “When we have an active event, we’ll call up a camera, whether it’s on the runways, the roadways or the terminals. We can see from this center what’s going on as it’s occurring.”

After an event, like a plane crash, notification — email, text messages, phone calls — of the appropriate responders and dispatching of police, fire and medical personnel begins. And in the case of a plane crash, FAA personnel will be on the “red phone.”

“If we’re in here and looking at the cameras, something bad has happened,” said Henry Thompson, who manages 155 staff members as associate deputy airport director of operations and security. In the case of something “bad,” staff would call up cameras in the vicinity of the incident and get every possible video angle. Two-way communication between emergency personnel in the field and staff in the EOC would take place regarding logistics and resources.

There are multiple tables, each equipped with video, satellite phone and other communication apparatus, in the EOC, which can be split into two rooms with a temporary sliding wall. There’s also a policy room where the airport director and other policymakers can be fed information and respond with action.

There are communication lines that can be opened, permitting personnel in the EOC to pick up channels from the airport tower, allowing them to hear communication with planes landing and taking off.

The EOC is 10 years old, but technology upgrades, like the physical security information management system, have kept up with the times. The system includes a GIS map, which shows a fly-over view of the entire airport, and allows staff to visualize nearly every inch of the airport via monitors. Analysts within the EOC can monitor just about any situation and feed information to first responders out in the field.

Marshall noted that since events happen so quickly, soon after the EOC is filled with officials, the response phase is actually a recovery phase. Marshall, who worked in the airline industry prior to joining safety staff at San Francisco International, said that not all airports are as equipped as SFO. “I visited several airports, many of which you would think have space and people dedicated to doing this. They don’t.”

Thompson said safety and security has to be a constant focus and never becomes routine. “Other airports have people in that role because they have to. The FAA says if you’re going to operate as a commercial airport, you have to do this. Not all of them have gone above and beyond and focused on what really needs to be done for that airport.”

Thompson and Marshall convene an Emergency Operations Group meeting monthly in the EOC for everyone on staff who would be called in if the center were activated. It’s a way to keep staff focused on safety issues and how everything works in the EOC, Thompson said. “We’re going to turn the lights on if something happens. Well, when something happens, you’re not going to know how to turn the lights on if you haven’t been proactive.”

Airport security staff is obviously well aware of the potential for a mass casualty event and prepared to respond as well as possible. “We have flights departing out of here with four or five hundred people on them,” Thompson said. “Something catastrophic that affects those flights will put us to the test.”

“We’re able to respond,” Thompson continued. “Not just put out the fire and rescue the people, but to triage, give mutual aid support — and we’re going to make it happen, no doubt about it.”

Airport personnel conduct a simulated plane crash three times each month where fire trucks and other first responders roll out to an old plane that’s used for practice, Thompson said. Personnel practice freeing victims, train with foam and test response times.

The airport has its own dispatch center with certified dispatchers, from which it sends out police, fire, ambulance and other operational departments. The airport serves nearly 45 million passengers a year and dispatchers stay busy. Thompson said the airport sees four or five health emergencies per day from incoming flights.

The dispatch center runs 24 hours a day and everyone in the center is cross-trained, according to communications manager Reginald Saunders. He said dispatchers get notified or “pinged” for myriad reasons and must react by sending a first responder. For example, there are defibrillators placed throughout the airport, and when one is accessed, it sends a message to dispatch, which calls up a camera in the area and sends help.

Also, if a TSA representative experiences trouble with a passenger, he or she can trigger a response by stepping on one of the pedals located in all security checkpoints. “There can be a camera callup at any checkpoint so that police have information before they get there,” Saunders said. “TSA steps on a pedal, and in a few minutes, you’ll get a tap on the shoulder.”

Terrorism is an ongoing concern, and Thompson tries to keep staff vigilant to avoid complacency. He said every one of the 20,000 or so airport employees who are issued a badge must first undergo training and understand the responsibilities that go along with obtaining access. “We have really focused on the culture of awareness,” Thompson said. “It’s everyone who is issued a badge, and we rely quite a bit on the traveling public to see things and report them.”

Thompson said his staff is in daily contact with federal, state and local authorities about potential threats. “Prior to 9/11, we weren’t getting much information, but today we are partners with all of the federal, state and local law enforcement agencies so it is really a coordinated effort to ensure the safety of the airport.”

Within the airport, multiple layers of security ease Thompson’s fears of someone getting through security and causing a problem. For instance, every door has an alarm on it, and if an unauthorized person goes through it, the alarm will ping personnel in the Security Operations Center. Analysts will then call up a camera on the door, find the person and dispatch personnel to the area.

Up until 2006, analysts, such as Tom Colosi, had to rewind video when an alarm sounded. Now they can get a camera on the area and follow whoever triggered the alarm. Colosi said all video is saved for 14 days and checkpoint video is saved for 45 days.

Thompson said that in light of today’s heightened awareness, something would have to go very wrong for someone to bypass security. “There are multiple layers in place to deter it before it happens. But the worst-case scenario is that multiple or all layers have failed and somebody gets through. I would like to say that’s not possible, but I can’t and that’s why we always have to be on guard. We talk to our team about it on a regular basis.”

Thompson said you can never really know when enough preparation, planning and training have been done to keep an airport safe. But he said SFO has gone “above and beyond” to assure the safety of visitors to the airport.

“I don’t know that you can ever be truly ready, but I think we do a good job of trying to get prepared for whatever may come at us.”

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.