Developing a Learning Culture

Why Our Experience with the JFK Bomb Scare Inspired Us to Brainstorm Better Crowd Control

By now you’ve probably heard about the bomb scare that paralyzed JFK airport in July. I was among the evacuated travelers, and I have a tale of confused crowds, misaligned authorities, and a disorganized mass evacuation that didn’t have to happen. After this first-hand experience, it led us at ELM to wonder what went wrong and more importantly, how we would train airport staff and authorities to better manage a similar event in the future.

“Zero organization…”

I was evacuated from the airport and eventually let back in after a suspicious package was deemed unthreatening. Still, the mass confusion about protocol left a lot of people wondering what to do–even those that should have known better. “Multiple security organizations, including the TSA, NYPD, Port Authority police and many others were giving conflicting information to the crowds,” I told the team. “Even after it was all over and we…reentered the airport, the personnel inside said we were not allowed to enter.”

Frustrating, right? Not only is a bomb scare a major threat and traumatizing for passengers, that trauma is compounded when staff, law enforcement, and the authorities give conflicting information and don’t follow the same protocol.

In Case of Emergency

In hospital emergency rooms, personnel is taught to triage effectively using live actors and role-playing scenarios to keep their skills sharp and see how they’d react in real-life situations. Because these simulations ensure everyone completes their roles and works as a team, they’re highly effective in ensuring the best quality of care.

Of course, real-life simulations played out by actors are expensive–costing both time and money that isn’t feasible on a massive scale (like that of an airport). Still, there are ways to create simulations that could prevent the mass hysteria and confusion of the JFK bomb scare.

One of the main issues of the JFK scenario is the fact that personnel had different roles and were reacting to the situation differently. Airline staff was not given the same information as law enforcement, and passengers were at the mercy of whoever happened to be standing in front of them at the time. What if, however, all personnel had undergone the same role-based training via 3D simulation? Computer-based simulations could not only help staff and personnel know how to properly react in emergency situations, but also see how other personnel is meant to react as well. By understanding how to open the chains of communication, assume the proper roles, and see how others have been instructed to react, the JFK confusion could have been completely avoided.

Simulations create a consistent experience for all of those involved with emergency protocol, so everyone is on the same page. While your organization might not be responsible for reacting to bomb scares, the same tactics could be applied to any emergency training or scenarios where multiple departments need to be deployed and mobilized at the same time. Consider it a low-cost, highly-effective fire drill: Using simulations lets employees practice their skills and use teamwork in a low-stakes environment.

If the JFK bomb scare was like an emergency room triage drill, there are clearly some gaps in airport personnel training. By reforming the way airports think about emergency protocol and creating open communication between departments, staff, and law enforcement, it’s our hope that when it’s for real, they’ll be prepared.