FEATURED IN INVESTIGATION
Any time an aircraft crashes, or otherwise makes an off-airport landing, it seems that the emergency response community and the media respond in full force. Once the primary objective of life preservation is accomplished and the injured are removed for treatment at the hospital, emergency response personnel tend to congregate and trample the scene, moving parts and collecting pieces of the aircraft. It seems as they are looking it over as if it were an object from space! Unknowingly, emergency response personnel make the job of investigating an aircraft crash much harder for investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Meanwhile the media train arrives and they clamor for "exclusive" shots or a "sound bite" from one of the emergency response personnel for the evening news. Since aviation tends to be mysterious to most people, it usually makes for a headline story.
As part of their emergency preparedness, every agency should have a specific written policy and procedure in place to respond to these types of incidents. Naturally, those jurisdictions that border airports have a higher chance of an incident and therefore their plans will likely be more thorough and complex. How would an agency go about planning for an aircraft incident? What guidance is available out there?
The FAA has recognized the problem or emergency responders and the lack of information when responding to an incident and is preparing to release an "Advisory Circular" to help acquaint response agencies with their responsibilities. The proposed document can be found at the FAA web site (link at the end of this article).
The document outlines procedures and suggestions for preserving the evidence at an aircraft incident. It provides pictures of the so-called "black boxes" (which are in-fact painted a bright orange) that are carried on-board larger aircraft and record both audio and the aircraft instruments/engines. If these boxes are found, emergency response personnel should make extra efforts to secure these boxes and if they must be moved, record their original location, preferably with photos.
Keep in mind that investigators from both the NTSB and FAA will not possibly arrive for hours and therefore response personnel can make observations as to weather and any other environmental factors such as ice, fog etc. You do not have to be an aviation expert to note the presence of heavy fog, low clouds or snow/ice. No speculation or assumption need be made, just record your observations and the investigators will use it as they see fit.
The FAA recommends photo and/or video documentation be made as soon as possible and they point out the obvious, documentation is always secondary to life preservation.
Be aware of any persons arriving at the scene in a capacity to "help" such as representatives of the aircraft. In New York City, a small plane landed along the Belt Parkway after the pilot reported "engine trouble." As investigators were on scene and conducting their investigation, a mechanic asked if he could "look over the aircraft." He pulled his truck up and actually attempted to add fuel to the aircraft. The real reason for the landing was the pilot was perilously low on fuel and was about to run out of gas. A sharp police officer, with no aviation experience, stopped the mechanic and called over a representative from the FAA to inquire exactly what was going on.
This Advisory Circular will serve as a nice "introduction" for emergency response personnel and could serve as a template to develop more advanced training.
Any incident involving an aircraft is certain to bring a media crush to the scene and it is better to be prepared for this onslaught than try and play catch-up once an incident has occurred.
If an agency really wants to expand their training and capabilities, the airport is a great place to start. Airport Crash & Rescue teams are an excellent source of information. They can provide assistance, printed materials, procedures and training that they use to accomplish the primary mission of the saving of lives as well preserving to the best extent possible, the crash scene. Other resources on the airport are the airport management, the actual aircraft operators as well as FAA personnel. These people or agencies have volumes of knowledge that they are usually very willing to share. A real progressive idea is to develop a "lesson plan" that could be used in initial recruit training and in-service training. It does not have to be extensive or complex. A one hour lesson plan on this topic could yield excellent results should the real thing happen.
Another fairly new resource is the NTSB Training Center. Opened a few years ago, the NTSB offers courses for first responders, accident investigations, photography and even courses in dealing with families involved in aircraft accidents. To see a listing of courses offered as well as descriptions log on to the NTSB website at ntsb.gov. There are also excellent courses offered by private universities and colleges such as the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering Aviation Safety and Security program.
Often times, an aircraft incident is truly a "minor" event. A small plane carrying two passengers lands in a field with no injuries is certain to make at least the local headline news while the one-person fatal auto accident is never mentioned. For some reason, news directors love an aircraft story and regardless if we think it is minor, the perception and reality is that it will certainly require preparedness.