I had to go to a conference in Sao Paulo last year in October, and I flew via -one of?- the largest international hubs in the world. Allow me not to say the name, but you know, that really big one ;-)…
During the four-hour stopover at the airport the fire alarm was triggered in the international transit zone. This is what happened:
At approximately 10pm local time, the PA system went off buzzing and a recorded message started to play. It went something like ‘Attention, attention. This is fire alarm, please evacuate the building using the emergency exits.’
I looked for the fire wardens or somebody that could tell us what to do. Was it a real or a false alarm? The airport staff in the area didn’t know much about the nature of the emergency and I could not identify any fire warden either. I went to the nearest emergency exit, pushed the onto the push-bar for fifteen seconds (as indicated in a sign at the door) and opened the emergency exit door, triggering a buzzing sound. At least –I thought- this door is not locked.
It struck me that nobody seemed particularly worried (a young mum with her baby and her mum did get ready to evacuate, but other guest were queuing for their meals as if nothing happened). I guess this lack of sense of danger was due to a combination of three factors: there was no sign of fire, false alarms tend to be common and the consequences of evacuating too early could mean you would lose your flight.
Nobody was evacuating and the staff would not confirm it was a real alarm, so I decided to wait by the door. Needless to say, evacuating an airport where hundreds of passengers (tens of thousands in this particular case, I’ve done my research…) have checked in and have to board their planes within the coming hours is probably one of the biggest undertakings as far as managing evacuations for false alarms go.
After a minute or two the PA message ceased and only the buzzing sound from the doors that had been opened remained (including the one I opened…). We were never told what had happened. I asked a waiter in the area and he said this was not frequent at all.
Had I been the Airport Manager I would’ve been more than disappointed with the response from the emergency response team. False alarms can never be completely eliminated, but the staff must be better informed on what was going on.
As a minimum I believe the airport response team should have:
1. Adequately identified the fire wardens (typically with a coloured helmet or vest with ‘FIRE WARDEN’ written on it)
2. The wardens should have informed the people to either stay in the area until the evacuation notice was confirmed or else directed the evacuation themselves.
3. Since it ended up being a false alarm, all airport occupants should have been notified that this was the case.
Interestingly, the list of occupants in an international transit zone at an airport must be as accurate as it gets so I would have expected a pretty impressive roll call.
What do you think? Could they have benefited from additional information? I certainly would’ve loved to know -as a minimum- if a real fire had been identified and how far it was from me!!