Blown Away: Risk Management & Public Safety

As an avgeek, I love pictures and videos of aircraft coming into land low over beaches, roads and anything else that happens to be near the end of runways. But should we continue to accept injuries to and the death of people who congregate in these areas during aircraft operations?

I understand the attraction. Being close to aircraft, hearing the noise and feeling the power of any aircraft taking off hasn’t gotten old for me despite the time I’ve spent airside. And locations such as St Maarten and Skiathos provide the general public with the opportunity to experience that closeness. But do they understand the risk?

Short answer: no.

The Evidence is Clear

Video after video shows people putting themselves in harm’s way and, sadly, we also have stories of injuries and even a death resulting from “riding the fence”.

It would also be safe to assume that for each reported case there are plenty more unreported injuries where the person affected has been too embarrassed to tell people what happened or doesn’t think to involve the airport operator as they were outside the fence.

With such an obvious safety issue, there must be clear requirements for this, right?

What Do the Standards Say?

For Australians, Americans and Kiwis, there are standards and legislation. The Australian requirements are outlined in section 6.6 of the Manual of Standards, which says that the “aerodrome operator must protect people and property from the dangerous effects of jet blast” and then it provides specifics on the maximum allowable wind velocities for different areas.

In the case of the situation we are discussing here, a maximum wind velocity of 60km/h should not pass the perimeter fence.

But for many other jurisdictions, the standards say nothing about protecting the public from jet blast. Annex 14 mentions jet blast primarily in the context of minimising erosion and FOD. It does suggest consideration of jet blast impacts on other aircraft. ICAO’s guidance material does mention protection from jet blast in the context of taxiways only.

Effective Safety Management?

In the absence of clear regulatory requirements, one would expect the airport’s safety management system to kick in to address this hazard.

A generous, thousand-mile-away view suggests that the airport has identified the hazard, completed some form of assessment and implemented some controls. Signage is the most obvious one with large signs such as in the header image and painted signs on road barriers as seen in the video. It also looks like the airport has installed additional fencing in the area in the last five (5) years to either increase the space between the aircraft and the people or discourage “riders” by forcing them on the road.

I think it is safe to say that these controls are ineffective.

And I think this is the case for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think signs are a good way of communicating risk and secondly, even if they were good, there effectiveness is limited because they are too low on the hierarchy of controls ladder.

Signage

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of weeks now and I’m convinced that signs should not be used to display risk-related information. Obviously, I should get a life because who thinks about this stuff?

So what are signs good for? From my idle ponderances, I would say directions and mandatory requirements are appropriate for signage and in some areas we already understand this.

Take, for example, the mandatory PPE signage. Someone has already done the risk calculation for us and determined that a hard hat, glasses, gloves, etc. is mandatory. Would these signs be as effective if they just indicated falling things, sparks or calluses?

Being the safety nerd that I am, I’m going to do a bit more research on this topic. If I think I can make it interesting enough (that’s a big if), I’ll post it here.

Hierarchy of Controls

Signage is considered an administrative control in the hierarchy of controls. This puts it just is one above PPE and generally thought of as having low effectiveness. I would say the main reason this category sits so low is that it requires people to comply and as you can see in the video, people don’t always comply.

Not all administrative controls are equal however. Procedures carried out by trained personnel tasked with a specific job under supervision can be relatively effective when compared to unmonitored activity by the general public.

I have seen another airport put in place an administrative control to address a jet blast on public risk and it was much more effective than signage. It involved positioning a safety officer with a vehicle at end of the runway (off to the side, of course). This person would observe the impacted area and either clear it or advise the aircraft about to take off. I believe this was considered acceptable under the expectation that a jet blast fence was to be installed in the future.

When considering the higher categories, I tend to focus on the hazard. So, elimination of the hazard (not the people) and substitution of the hazard (again, not the people). Since we’re not in a position to do much about how aircraft fly, we are somewhat limited to engineering controls.

Fencing is an engineering control if is effectively separates the people from the jet blast but given this is not the case above, I would not even consider it a control against the jet blast hazard. Jet blast fences would appear to be the best way to go. As a control, these would act to either slow the let blast down or divert it away from the public.

Back Seat Driving

I know it’s easy for me to pontificate about SMS practices here and get all judgmental about other airports and their decision with no knowledge of the local context with respect to the actual engineering or finances or politics. It’s not my intent to cast judgement on either of the airports mentioned above.

But I think this issue and these events and these videos can be illuminating to any airport operator. I do think that generally enough is not being done as people are getting hurt. That is never of good thing for our communities, our partners or our industry’s reputation.

Image credit: Richie Diesterheft