When Problems Arise, Airport Personnel Stand Ready

As microcosms of cities, airports must increasingly respond to societal issues with skill and compassion

By Alyson Walls

Published December 14, 2018

Read Time: 4 mins


When a 22-year-old passenger collapsed from a drug overdose at Pittsburgh International Airport in September, police immediately responded with medical treatment.

The man, who was scheduled to fly out that day to a drug rehab facility, didn’t make it on the plane — but he survived thanks to a quick police response.

The incident was a reminder that society’s ills are not left outside an airport’s doors. With thousands of employees, numerous public and private entities operating on site, and millions of passengers passing through their terminals each year, airports are often described as small cities. And that usually means they face the same issues and problems as the cities and regions they serve.

“Security incidents such as door alarms, unattended bags and prohibited items are a major portion of our police activities,” said County Police Inspector William Palmer. “But assists to passengers, including being first responders, are also a large portion of our calls.”

Most of the time, airports are safe, peaceful (though often hectic) places. But airport personnel must be prepared for everything: in addition to facing such high-profile threats as terrorism and active shooters, airports deal with drunk and disorderly passengers, drug overdoses, the homeless and/or mentally ill, theft and other crimes, public demonstrations and more.

Both police and firefighters at PIT now carry Narcan — the medicine used for treatment of opioid overdoses, which have been described as a national epidemic and are prevalent in the Pittsburgh region. Police used Narcan to revive the 22-year-old before an ambulance whisked him away to a local hospital.

On Thursday, the Allegheny County Health Department participated in a statewide initiative to distribute free Naloxone, which can revive someone who has overdosed on an opioid such as heroin. With 80 locations throughout the state, including five in Allegheny County, officials said it was the largest such distribution ever held in the U.S.

Proper equipment, constant training key to airport’s emergency response

Airport officials and regional first responders participated in a triennial drill in August to practice emergency response capabilities.

At PIT over the past year, airport firefighters delivered a baby at the Hyatt Hotel and assisted two other pregnant women. They also responded to medical emergencies, including cardiac arrests and falls on escalators and moving walkways. Automated external defibrillators, airport courtesy phones and “Stop the Bleed” kits have been installed around the terminal for faster notification and response to emergencies.

In addition to responding to aircraft alerts, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and fuel spills, firefighters responded to 170 falls, 113 sick people and 113 unconscious or fainting people during the 12 months ending Sept. 1, 2018.

Because of the vast array of potential emergencies, the airport offers CPR classes and fire extinguisher training, along with other informational courses such as how to recognize human trafficking, to staff annually. That’s in addition to regular tabletop crisis exercises and simulated emergency drills.

“Above all, customer needs — whether it be life safety or way-finding assistance — guide our priorities and decisions,” said April Gasparri, senior vice president of public safety, operations and maintenance. “Providing the best customer care is how and why our first responders continually elevate their training and efficiency.”

County police officers patrol roadways for speed and parking enforcement and often are called upon to investigate thefts reported by concessionaires and rental car companies.

“Many of these are theft of leased property — when they fail to return a rental — but almost just as often, the vehicle is rented to a person using a fictitious or stolen identity,” Palmer said. “We investigate and obtain warrants on these investigations when we can.”

As the temperatures turn colder, airport officials will respond to frequent calls about the homeless sleeping in the terminal.

“We receive many suspicious person calls,” Palmer said. “Often these calls deal with people with mental health issues. We are in the process of training all of our officers in crisis intervention, which provides some guidance in dealing with those with mental illness.”

Airport staff have gone the extra mile to assist in many cases. Last year, Paul Saxon, facilities maintenance supervisor, received a quarterly staff award for providing personal assistance, including clean clothing and cab fare to a shelter, for a man who identified himself as a homeless veteran.

Gasparri said retired New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton’s philosophy of public service was to “sweat the small stuff before it becomes the big stuff.” That’s the approach that guides the emergency personnel at PIT.

“As our firefighters, police, security guards, tenants and employees work together on the small issues, our customers are highly safeguarded before bigger issues arise,” Gasparri said.

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