King County International Airport Tests Its Emergency Preparedness

Issue 10 and Volume 9.

Air transportation services contend with unique and potentially catastrophic scenarios that can endanger large numbers of people. The responsibility to mitigate and manage these occurrences falls to the aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF) unit and airport management personnel.

King County–Boeing Field International Airport (KBFI) is one of the busiest primary non-hub airports in the nation. Located just five miles south of downtown Seattle, it averages about 200,000 operations-takeoffs and landings-each year. The airport serves small commercial passenger airlines, cargo carriers, private aircraft owners, helicopters, corporate jets, military airframes and other research aircraft. It’s also home to the Boeing Company’s aircraft flight-test program, along with other Boeing operations, and is frequently host to celebrities and dignitaries, including the President of the United States, who prefers KBFI due to its proximity to downtown Seattle and other commercial areas.1 The airport is also an alternative landing site for the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac Airport) under the Aircraft Diversion Plan. These responsibilities make KBFI an FAA Class IV airport.

The Aircraft Fire Rescue Police unit at KBFI is unique. Eighteen King County Sheriff deputies, each with more than 10 years patrol or detective experience, staff the unit. Once in the unit, each is cross-trained and certified as Washington state firefighters and EMTs. The unit provides ARFF, law enforcement, airfield security services and safety inspections for KBFI.2 In 2012 and 2013 combined, the ARFF unit responded to a total of 57 Alert 1 (standby), 12 Alert 2 (full emergency), and five Alert 3 (aircraft accident) incidents, as well as 44 fuel spills, 104 fire alarms, 15 medical calls and seven hazardous materials responses.

In addition to the Aircraft Fire Rescue Police unit, the Boeing Company also maintains a corporate fire service at the King County airport to support Boeing’s flight testing and delivery center. Boeing firefighters are Washington state certified and provide an aircraft and structural fire service for the center and other support facilities surrounding the airport.

Drill Preparation

In October of 2013, KBFI and the ARFF unit hosted a series of emergency response and mass-casualty functional exercises involving fire and medical mutual-aid agencies throughout South King County.3 Only Class I airports are required to conduct full-scale exercises every 36 months.4,5 However, since KBFI serves SeaTac Airport as a diversion airport, it was deemed prudent to conduct the same caliber of exercise to evaluate mutual-aid capabilities.

The objectives for the exercises were:

  1. Test the mass-casualty incident (MCI) plan
  2. Evaluate the ability of different agencies to work and communicate together during a large-scale event
  3. Assess the ability of rescuers to operate in and near an airplane
  4. Examine the organization of unified command
  5. Use the Incident Command System (ICS)
  6. Meet FAA-required criteria for KBFI’s airport emergency plan

Two exercises were held each day over a five-day period, involving more than 700 people from 16 agencies within southern King County. The scenario consisted of an aircraft body mockup of a commercial jet provided by Boeing, whose flight test and delivery center is co-located at KBFI, and dozens of volunteers were moulaged to represent various injuries.6

Drill Scenario

The scenario starts with the tower notifying the ARFF unit via crash phone of a Boeing 737 test plane with 20 people on-board declaring an in-flight emergency for smoke in the cockpit; the plane wasreported to be 20 miles out (Alert 2). ARFF requests assistance from Boeing Fire to stage along the main runway. ARFF then establishes incident command (Airport Command) and requests that the county communication center establish a crosspatch with the private communication center, which assumes primary communications since most of the South King County mutual-aid fire departments operate from that communications center.

Once the crosspatch is set, Airport Command notifies the primary communication center of the emergency and implements a 20-person MCI in preparation. In these exercises, the aircraft crashes upon landing and breaks apart, causing an Alert 3 emergency. ARFF and Boeing Fire conduct suppression operations with the Boeing fire chief assuming control as Suppression Group Leader. The airport duty manager (Airport Ops) responds to the pre-designated initial staging area awaiting instruction to lead the first-arriving mutual-aid agencies to the primary staging area, managed by the staging group leader, usually the first-arriving battalion chief or company officer.

Initial mutual-aid agencies assist with any further suppression, as well as establish a rescue group and medical group. The next wave of mutual-aid agencies weave into the various groups as directed by Airport Command, depending upon resource needs. Airport Ops becomes part of the Airport Command staff to assist with procuring other airport resources, and then assumes command once the incident transitions into the recovery phase.

Lessons Learned

As expected, many agencies that hadn’t worked together regularly had a hard time blending resources for a common purpose. But by the end of the week, agencies were operating as efficiently as a well-oiled machine. Some of the major lessons learned focused on communications, incident command, and rescue.

Communications-Interoperable communications played an important role in the success of the drills. The ARFF unit, which is under the Sheriff’s Office, uses the county communications center. The other participating agencies use another private communications center, excepting Boeing’s fire department, which uses their own corporate communication center. The county and private communication centers have crosspatching capabilities, but the process hadn’t yet been tested in a large-scale multi-agency scenario. Boeing Fire’s communications center can’t crosspatch, so their emergency vehicles’ radio systems needed to be reprogrammed to include the ARFF frequency, allowing them to participate in the crosspatched communications. As previously agreed, the primary center would be the private communications center since it is used by a majority of the responding fire and EMS agencies. This required the ARFF unit, who received the initial call, to request crosspatching between the county center and the private center. ARFF could then request mutual-aid support and talk with the responding agencies.

Incident Command-Given that specially-trained and certified law enforcement officers staff the ARFF unit, during the year leading up to the drills members attended numerous ICS-related classes, such as the Blue Card Command Certification Program and the National Fire Academy’s Strategy and Tactics for Initial Company Operations (STICO). This educational exposure allowed the ARFF staff to effectively assume the role of incident command and manage the various resources deployed during the exercises. The ICS worked best using the following components in the order implemented:

  • Incident commander, who maintained command and control over all emergency operations.
  • Suppression group, which worked the initial on-scene triage to identify the scope of the incident.
  • Staging group, which managed in-coming resources prior to assignment.
  • Rescue group, which consisted of an extrication team and an extraction team.
  • Medical group, which consisted of a treatment team and a transport team.

The rescue group and medical group were given their own separate radio frequencies, which reduced the volume of confusing chatter and added to the level of situational awareness the incident commander needed to maintain control of the overall incident.

Rescue-The last takeaway from the drills was the need to rapidly rescue and transport victims. Each drill consisted of approximately 12 live victims and eight “dead” victims (manikins). The time and first responder resources needed to triage, extricate, extract and transport viable victims was shocking. Functions during the initial drills took as long as 90 to 120 minutes from initial notification of an Alert 3 (Aircraft Crash) to the last live victim placed on an ambulance.

By the end of the week, the overall time diminished to approximately 40 to 50 minutes, well within the “Golden Hour,” the ideal duration wherein a patient should be at a hospital receiving life-sustaining care. The factor that contributed the most to the reduction in time was the use of MegaMover stretchers in place of backboards. Backboards were initially used but found to be extremely cumbersome during the extrication and extraction phases. The MegaMover allowed for work in tighter spaces, reduced unsupported victim movement and increased speed to the transportation area for transfer to an ambulance.

A Final Word

Overall, the drills provided enormous insight, especially for law enforcement, on the scale of response and resources needed for an aircraft crash involving a plane the size of a Boeing 737 carrying 20–40 people. For the ARFF unit, many procedural deficiencies were identified and steps are in progress to correct those deficiencies. While only Class I airports are required to conduct triennial full-scale exercises, it’s paramount that all airports and supporting agencies, regardless of size or class, do some sort of hands-on exercise to fully understand what’s needed and test the policies and procedures in place, so that weaknesses are identified and corrected prior to the “big one.”


1. King County. (2013). King County International Airport/Boeing Field. Retrieved on March 31, 2014, from

2. King County. (2013). King County Sheriff: King County International Airport. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from

3. Kent Reporter. (2013). Emergency responders plan drill next week at King County International Airport. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from\news\228661811.html.

4. U.S. Government Printing Office. (2013). Title 14, part 139: Certification of airports. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from

5. Federal Aviation Administration. (2010). Advisory circular (AC) 150/5200-31C: Airport emergency plan, Change 1. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from\documentLibrary\media\150_5200_31c_chg1.pdf.

6. Kent Reporter. (2013). Reminder: South King County fire training at airport begins today. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from\news\229582211.html.