Following the 9/11 attacks there were thousands of airplanes needing to be landed, many of them at airports they were not destined for, and with very tight timelines due to fuel consumption. And yet all planes were successfully grounded without any losses.
One can only imagine all the effort it took to coordinate this outcome and all the possibilities that could have occurred had so many people not been prepared or working together. One aspect of the story that emerged involved staff at the Federal Aviation Administration’s command center in Herndon, VA. Dealing with all the uncertainty and chaos of events unfolding in NY and elsewhere at the time it became clear they needed to instruct air traffic controllers nationwide to get planes down on the ground quickly. Rather than issue reams of orders which would likely have created confusion and led to further catastrophes the FAA issued an unprecedented order:
“Empty the skies.
Land every flight.
There were no how-to instructions issued, just a straightforward message together with trust in the thousands of professionals who held the key to making it happen. In such a heavily regulated and safety oriented industry there are no doubt contingencies for any number of events, but how do you possibly prepare for and actively simulate an event of this magnitude? And how can we as an organization learn from lessons such as these? As we continue to take steps here at AK Child & Family to protect our students, staff, and facilities these questions were kept in mind. The types of events we plan for are things like earthquakes, winter weather, intruders, fires; the sort of events that could happen to any business or home. We have developed grab-and-go manuals, policies, communication chains, and look to mitigate any number of issues that could arise in any given incident. But as the FAA’s orders go to show when the rubber meets the runway it’s the professionals working directly on scene who utilize their skills, apply their knowledge, make alterations in the face of adversity, and come up with problem-solving solutions to unexpected contingencies.
So with the FAA’s example in mind we approached some of our evacuation drills a little differently this year. As we simulated campus-wide evacuations and emergency lockdowns one of our focuses was certainly building muscle memory (based on the idea doing is better than reading or hearing only) and another was observing staff and students adapt to and surmount obstacles impeding them through the drill. Both staff and students did a tremendous job rising to the challenges they faced. Whether adjusting to route closures, coming up with novel ideas for moving supplies in inclement weather, identifying weaknesses in existing plans, or making recommendations for improvements to physical plant it was they who made our recent drills the success they were. Having people committed to the safety of our students and each other is imperative to the success of our agency. Providing them the tools and resources to do so is one of the responsibilities of administrative and supervisory employees. We continue to stress-test the protocols and hope that they may never be needed, but in the event they are we strongly believe in all of our staff’s ability to put into practice what they have learnt and seek solutions to unanticipated events as necessary.