Airports and the CBRN threat: A rescue and firefighting service perspective

Guest Author by Guest Author | Jan 8, 2020

Written by Richard Duncan, Director of Assurance and Risk, CAMOR Ltd.

History has shown us that airports have become desirable targets for terrorist attacks. These attacks have been commonly carried out with the use of explosive devices or weapons, which has driven the focus towards the detection and prevention of these type of incidents in the airport environment and beyond.

The Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) threat presents a more complex conundrum and is much more difficult to detect and deter, as the technology to identify such risks is both limited and costly.

Airports present an attractive target for this type of attack as the chemical or biological agent can be easily concealed within a person’s luggage and without names or bag checks on everyone who enters the front door, it is difficult to keep a professional terrorist—especially one who has a ticket—away from the facility.

Proactive or reactive response?

According to the 2014 Communication of the European Commission on a new EU approach to the detection and mitigation of CBRN-E risks there are ample opportunities for a determined terrorist outfit to access CBRN material. Thefts and misplacements of CBRN material occur on hundreds of occasions each year and there is a particular risk that terrorists might use sarin, ricin, or anthrax. More than 150 cases of trafficking of radiological and nuclear materials are reported annually to the Incident and Trafficking Database of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Airports review their risk and threat assessment and determine whether to adopt a proactive or reactive approach or a combination of both, depending on the organizational risk appetite. Regardless of which approach is taken it would make sense to involve the Rescue and Firefighting Service (RFFS), both internally and externally.  A partnership response is key in terms of the integrated emergency management phases of planning, response, and recovery.

Proactive considerations

The planning and preparation for dealing with a release of a biological or chemical agent can take many forms including:

  • The use of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC). Normally used in fire engineering smoke control solutions to protect large open spaces during fire situations to remove, filter, and contain biological or chemical contaminants. This however can be costly.
  • Containment and control procedures to deal with potential contamination of water and food supplies within the airport environment.
  • The purchase and introduction of detection systems – the cost and range of agents that can be detected can be influencing factors on availability and use.
  • The training of customer facing staff in Initial Operational Response protocols and visual indicators of a CBRN event.
  • Multi-agency pre-planned training, exercising, and response.

Reactive considerations

In the event that the airport finds itself responding to a situation, the local authority and/or the municipal RFFS will play an important role in the response and subsequent decontamination process and therefore consideration should be given to the following:

  • What role will the airport RFFS play?
  • Have the airport’s RFFS received training in CBRN response and multi-agency incident command protocols?
  • What training and exercising have the airport’s RFFS undertaken with the external emergency responders including fire, police, and medical response?
  • Does this airport have a bespoke CBRN plan?

What is your airport CBRN strategy?

It is recommended that all airports have a specific CBRN plan in place. Airport management should consider the following:

  • Does the airport have a working strategy to deal with a potential contamination spread on flights from the airport to the destination it services?
  • How will it restore and maintain public confidence due to the widespread fear and panic of chemical and biological agents?
  • These types of incidents will severely impact business as usual, due to the decontamination process. Does the Business Continuity Plan (BCP) and Business Impact Analysis (BIA) include this in their strategy?

Is your airport prepared for a CBRN incident?

The initial response to a CBRN event is key. An airport should consider training all staff in recognizing the signs, symptoms, and indicators that may present themselves, which may include all or some of the following:

  • Dead or distressed people
  • Multiple individuals showing unexplained signs of skin, eye or airway irritation,  nausea, vomiting, twitching, sweating, pin-point pupils, runny nose, disorientation, breathing difficulties, convulsions, and death
  • The presence of hazardous materials or unusual materials and equipment
  • Unexplained vapour or mist clouds
  • Unexplained oily droplets or films on surfaces or water
  • Withered plant life and vegetation

The way forward

Every airport should have detection, protection, and response strategies as part of their overall airport security planning, business continuity, and risk management processes.

Providing serious consideration to training onsite airport RFFS in CBRN response enables airports to effectively respond to any incident in the shortest possible time frames, while awaiting support from the local authority and/or municipal RFSS.

A good place to start is the airport RFFS in Initial Operational Response (IOR) protocols with regard to the initial containment and decontamination process – which can go a long way to restricting the potential spread dependent on the agent and type of contamination.

It is inconceivable that an airport would remain operational in the event of a CBRN attack, and therefore the recommendation is that all airport RFFS are trained in CBRN response.

The response strategy is the last resort. If the detection and protection elements have been breached, it is paramount that airports RFFS respond effectively.


Richard Duncan is the Director of Assurance and Risk of CAMOR Ltd. Having served 30 years in the Fire and Rescue Service industry, he is an expert in the management of critical incident response and the delivery of Integrated Emergency Management solutions, specializing in Multi-Agency Counter Terrorism Planning, Response and Recovery.

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