Airports Authority Figure

Stephanie Murphy heads emergency preparedness at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority — alone.

by Jim McKay / April 21, 2017
Stephanie Murphy, emergency preparedness coordinator, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority David Kidd/e.Republic

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority was created in 1985 to develop, promote and safely operate Reagan National and Dulles International airports, which serve the national capital region. Stephanie Murphy became the first emergency preparedness coordinator two years ago and is poised to gain her first staff member soon.

Murphy counts on her years of experience in emergency management, including as deputy coordinator, National Incident Management System compliance coordinator, and deputy and regional planner for the Arlington County, Va., Office of Emergency Management; crisis management trainer for the U.S. Department of State; and planning section chief for FEMA’s National Incident Management Assistant Team.

We asked Murphy how she does it all at the Airports Authority.

Can you start by describing your role with the Airports Authority?

My role is to look at emergency management and preparedness from an all-hazards perspective. To ensure that the Airports Authority — meaning Reagan, Dulles and our Dulles toll road — are prepared for whatever might come. I really look at it from a corporate perspective, an enterprise executive level in making sure we have what we need in place to be prepared and filling in those gaps if we don’t.

It’s the full gamut of emergency management. There’s preparedness, response, recovery. I’m the director of the EOC. I put together all the plans for continuity of operations. It’s only two years old, so I’m building from the ground up. It’s been there as long as I’ve been here.

I’m really building the program as a traditional emergency management program, but in the way that best fits our needs at the airports.  

Is there a typical day in your workweek?

There isn’t a typical day. One day I’m at meetings with our regional partners, at our council of governments with other emergency managers in the region working on regional issues, or I’m at a safety or security meeting with our leadership at the airports or responding to incidents. We just had a couple of flights over the last couple of weeks that were diverted, and we’ve had protests much like other airports have had with the Presidential Executive Order.

So just making sure that those things are managed appropriately, to putting together a planning team and doing several monthlong exercise developments. We do several full-scale exercises, tabletops and drills, and I head those efforts as well.

What a traditional six-to-eight-person emergency management team would do right now, it’s just me doing it, so it’s filling in all those different aspects little by little here and there. I’ll be hiring my first staff member soon.

In terms of other agencies, who do you partner with?

We partner with our federal partners who are at the airports — the FBI, TSA, FAA, NTSB, Fish and Wildlife — and the airport operations, public safety and I are the three groups that work very close together. We also work with the state and local [governments], from the commonwealth of Virginia, to Arlington County to the city of Alexandria to Loudoun and Fairfax counties, on projects and bringing them into exercises to make sure we’re all working on the same page.

And then you also have to remember we have all the airlines, the concessions — we have to assure as a business those things are running. So we kind of have a dual role in a sense where we’re a corporation and we have to run a business, but we’re also considered our own jurisdiction where we have to run a police department, a fire department and now emergency management. And we have to manage appropriately just like any other government would.

Do all the partners you mentioned take part in the exercises?

Yes, absolutely. Partnering with our airport operations and public safety, I try to bring in those partnerships because I’m at the corporate executive level where we’re trying to make sure everyone is not in silos and make sure that, though we have our own lanes, we all move down the freeway in the same direction. You might need to merge together or cross over here or there, but we’re all moving in the same direction. The exercises that our airport operations does are full-scale, mass-casualty exercises, mandated by TSA and FAA to be done every three years.

They head those efforts and pull in all the partners, and that typically deals with an aircraft accident. On the flip side, I look at pretty much every other hazard. We did an active shooter exercise in 2015 at Reagan National Airport, and then last year I did a complex coordinated attacks exercise series, where we did a functional exercise that dealt with insider threat issues. We did a full-scale exercise that was an IED and secondary attack, and then we did a tabletop the next day. This was all within a week. We looked at long-term recovery issues.

All through the exercises, the planning team comprises those partners, as well as bringing in the response agencies or those people who would be part of preplanning of an event to the actual recovery piece. We had the medical examiner and Red Cross because we absolutely know we’re not going to be doing it alone and we can’t.

You said you prepare for all hazards, but what’s at the top of the list?

I would say it’s sadly the flavor of the day. A few years back it was pandemics because of H1N1. At the airports we do look at terrorism since we are a vulnerable infrastructure piece. We’ve seen it all over the world from Turkey to Brussels where the airports have been attacked and then a metro system in Brussels where they had a dual attack, to Fort Lauderdale Airport where they had an attack. Right now, one of our biggest concerns is simply ensuring that we protect our public spaces.

How do we make sure that we’re working together to keep our eyes and ears open on the ground and empowering all of those who have badges at our facility because for the first three to five minutes we’re not going to be there? One of our biggest priorities is how we empower all of our badge holders to be leaders.

The cause, whether it’s human caused or not, is not really the main concern; what I really want to make sure of is that whatever happens we’re prepared to deal with it.

I’m surprised that this began just two years ago.

There were plans, but it was a little bit more disjointed. It was per airport. There was maybe a large, full-scale exercise every three years. The emergency management preparedness program really looks to bring all those things together enterprisewide to incorporate our IT and corporate people like finance and taking it a step further out and making it more robust.  

I would have thought you would have six or seven people on staff.

It’s a heavy lift, but I’ve been given a lot of latitude on building the program (I report to the chief operating officer) and taking it in, prioritizing as I’ve needed to. Six months in, I said we need to get another person, but we had to find money for it since we don’t generate money. We don’t have taxpayers, we have passengers and concessions, but finding the budget is a slow growth.

It’s a huge accomplishment to go from one to two people. I’ve applied for grants that could bring on a third person, and I use interns. I’ve enlisted police to help me write plans, and I’ve tried to be creative that way. I try to find unique ways to get things done and get people to buy in.

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