Should a natural disaster strike in the US, airports can rest assured DOGs will be en route to provide necessary aid.
DOGs, the bicoastal entities of the Southeast Airport Disaster Operations Group (SEADOG) and the Western Airports Disaster Operations Group (WESTDOG), combine as a pack and stand ready to assist any airport in the country, regardless of geographic location, explained Patrick Graham, executive director of Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport and founder of the SEADOG initiative.
“SEADOG has grown into quite an organisation,” Graham says of the informal collection of airports that have banded together to provide operational assistance to airports hit by disasters such as hurricanes and floods.
“We have our own website now with a list of airport volunteers that can assist as needed, and an inventory from each airport of the assistance they can offer not only in labour, materials and equipment, but what they can do and are willing to do. So we know what our assets are, whereas we never knew that in the beginning. And we basically have good contacts and a good reputation with almost all of the emergency management organisations of each state now.”
SEADOG originally formed in the mid-2000s and earned its sea legs (pun intended) in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina followed by Hurricane Rita.
“When we had Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, it became a protracted event between Gulfport, New Orleans, Lake Charles and Northeast Texas Regional,” recalls Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport’s assistant executive director Greg Kelly, the operational director behind SEADOG.
“It became obvious that we needed support beyond what we were getting in just our south-eastern region.”
Upon reaching out to neighbouring airports Texas, Houston and Dallas jumped in the mix, to assist affected airports in the costliest natural disaster in US history.
And as time marched on, SEADOG started planning long-term as short-term solutions ceased to be effective, especially in New Orleans.
“We needed to get a number of large airports to support us, and Seattle-Tacoma, Portland, Phoenix and San Diego jumped in and basically agreed to rotate in to support the New Orleans’ airport recovery operation,” explains Kelly.
Mark Crosby, chief public safety director at Portland International Airport, was a leader among the six large West Coast airports that answered SEADOG’s call for assistance.
“Because of our industry relationships, I worked together with Greg Kelly to form a team from Portland to fly into New Orleans and provide a group of fire-fighters, airport maintenance workers and operations staff,” Crosby says.
Crosby reveals that assisting airports tended to offer aid in rotating weekly waves. “We came in for the fourth wave, and by that time, commercial service had resumed at New Orleans,” he says, noting that he worked telephonically with Savannah, Orlando and the FAA to co-ordinate the efforts with other small airports that were affected by Hurricane Rita.
“We worked with both Phoenix and San Diego airports to organise relief teams to travel into that region, and they ended up helping out Lake Charles and Northeast Texas Regional airports when Hurricane Rita hit three weeks after Katrina.”
Upon returning home after the successful aid effort, Crosby and his West Coast counterparts discussed their region’s propensity for disasters in the way of earthquakes and other seismic events, and ultimately decided to form a group similar to SEADOG.
A white paper concept of operations was formed for WESTDOG, and a few weeks later, a five-person working group met in San Diego to write a comprehensive mutual aid plan that exists today – a 60-page document full of checklists based on experiences and lessons learned responding to Hurricane Katrina and Rita.
Crosby said WESTDOG has emerged a bit different to SEADOG and is a more formal organisation that rotates airport leadership on a voluntary basis. SEADOG, on the other hand, determines the lead airport geographically based upon the event. But regardless, both DOG outfits serve the same purpose.
“In any given situation, we provide staff to backfill when impacted airport staff are exhausted or aren’t able to come to work because their personal lives are impacted by natural disasters,” adds Crosby.
“The reason that is important is because the whole concept of the DOGs is airport people helping airport people. I know for sure I would 1,000 times out of 1,000 times want someone from an airport coming to help me rather than a contractor who doesn’t know how to spell the airport’s name.
“Every airport is different, but every airport has the same elements. During our real life deployments, after an hour or two of orientation, we could pretty much figure out what was going on because we pretty much had the same elements, just configured differently at our airports.
“You have that built-in knowledge base already there when you plug into an airport’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) to say we have some fully energised and charged staff to help you out.”
On the ready
Currently, WESTDOG tallies 30 participating airports of varying sizes from Colorado in the west, and SEADOG maintains a contact list of more than 100 nationwide airports available for action between SEADOG and WESTDOG.
Since Katrina and Rita, however, the DOGs have been lucky in that they have yet to reactivate.
“We have been put on alert status a few times, but we sat back and waited,” says Savannah/Hilton Head’s Kelly, noting that the DOG groups were recently in communications with the EOC in St Louis after recent tornadoes and flooding.
Other recent standby events have included:
• Engagement of the WESTDOG/SEADOG groups in Seattle’s efforts to plan for an anticipated Washington State dam break that would have flooded the local Green River Valley in 2009. Seattle-Tacoma was developing contingency plans and pre-planned with other airports and the mutual aid groups to be part of their recovery plan.
• Contact and discussion about potential support from non-affected airports in the event of repatriation activity. After the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, many west coast US airports were threatened with repatriation flights that would consume the destination airports. The State Department was considering deploying thousands upon thousands of dependent family members of the military in the event the nuclear situation got out of control.
• Contact with the Houston emergency operations centre at their airport regarding Summer 2011 fires near the metropolis.
“With any kind of natural disaster or major incident that affects an airport, we are in contact with and send out alerts to our membership,” enthuses Kelly, noting that Memphis was involved in a large-scale exercise where they walked through the scenario of an earthquake because of a fault line that runs through there.
He says: “They wrote us into their contingency scenario as a mutual aid entity to support the airport in their recovery efforts.”
Crosby echoed that the DOGs have stood ready for floods in the Midwest and the north-west, and firestorms down in San Diego.
“The good and the bad news is that we have not deployed since 2005 because there hasn’t been any significantly large event,” comments Crosby. “We have had several conference calls during flooding and possible dam breach events in Seattle and repatriation events in Seattle and Denver after the earthquake and nuclear fallout in Japan.
“We get on conference calls and hear what the impacted airports are going through and stand ready to assist if they request it. Yet so far, nothing has been as catastrophic as what it was down in New Orleans.
“The positive thing in my mind is that we have been able to maintain a network and a structure through an all volunteer basis and we have gotten FEMA recognition and FAA and TSA know that we are out here and we are an all volunteer network and we are writing ourselves into our FAA-required Emergency Management Plans.”
To date, the DOGs have focused their efforts on aid to US airports as they have yet to arrive at a mechanism that would allow the groups to go overseas or across borders.
“We have been asked before, and we want to help,” remarks Kelly, noting the challenge of legal constraints through the State Department. Within the US, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) allows agencies to cross state lines.”
Yet despite a number of notable natural disasters, the DOGs have been kept at bay.
“We haven’t been called to action again, but we have kept the concept alive and we have tried to document some of our best practices in this mutual aid plan to keep things going,” Crosby says.
“Hurricane Katrina was probably the most rewarding professional experience, I have ever had – to go down there and help them out when many had lost their homes. They truly remember and appreciate what we did, and the cost of it was zero.”