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A year on: Are we prepared for another Karachi Airport attack?

June 08, 2015

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Smoke rising from the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi after an attack on June 8, 2014. —AP
Smoke rising from the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi after an attack on June 8, 2014. —AP

It has been one year since the Jinnah International Airport (JIA) of Karachi came under a deadly attack by militants on the night of 8th June, 2014.

Twenty four valuable lives were lost and property damaged. The horrific event tarnished the image of one of the largest cities in the world and in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, some international airlines decided to wrap up their operations in Karachi — crippling the already declining air traffic at the airport.

The assault on this key installation had far reaching consequences in terms of security at airports and also culminated in the launch of operation Zarb-e-Azb on 15th June, 2014.

The Karachi airport attack was the biggest event at JIA since the hijacking of the Pan Am Flight 73 with 360 passengers on board, in the year 1986. Twenty passengers on board were killed and 100 injured by four Palestinian hijackers belonging to Abu Nidal Organisation. All four terrorists were arrested by Pakistani authorities after a failed attempt to blow themselves up along with the plane and passengers.

Explore: Karachi airport attack: How it happened...

Today, as we look back, what have we really learnt from this terrorist attack?

  • The security agencies have realised their roles and have plugged loopholes in the security system. The airport security, for one, has been tightened with stricter checking and limiting the number of passengers in each vehicle to two. Hopefully, similar security measures have also been enforced at the cargo entrance of JIA.

  • Also, the formation and deployment of a rapid response force by the armed forces took place to deal with such unexpected events.

  • The operation Zarb-e-Azab was soon launched to bomb the hideouts and eliminate the local and foreign militants from Pakistan.

  • Exercises were also conducted at the airport to practice and implement a security and response plan to deal with major and minor emergencies.

Unfortunately, The Army Public School carnage took place as retaliation to the Zarb-e-Azab operation.

However, are we really prepared to deal with a major disaster in Pakistan? I will leave the counter terror efforts to experts and focus on a more important aspect of all preventative strategies – Disaster Planning and Management.

Lack of command and control over rescue and response efforts

According to the international Disaster Management protocols, an Incident Command System (ICS) (Fig. 1) is to be established at every institution that is immediately activated in the event of a disaster or emergency. The ICS is a tool used for the command, control and coordination of an emergency response. The United Nations recommends the application of the ICS globally to manage disasters and emergencies.

Figure 1: Structure of the Incident Command System

According to the incident command system, the Incident Commander (IC) is the first person, who is trained and experienced, who takes control of the situation on the ground at site of an emergency or disaster. In this accord, seniority, rank or grades do not matter.

The IC has the overall authority at incident or emergency event. They directly control the operations and are responsible for development of objectives early in the disaster response. The IC also delegates authorities and responsibilities to personnel who directly or indirectly report to the IC.

The IC wears a vest or jacket with the initials Incident Commander inscribed on it to identify his or her role and authority.

In the circumstances that prevailed in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the airport, the incident commander (IC) leading the rescue of the seven trapped personnel should ideally have been a qualified, trained person, who was authoritative and assumed the role of a leader.

Media management and handling

One of the most important personnel on the ICS team is a Public Information Officer (PIO), whose role is to release information to the media. The PIO should be appointed early in the response to deal with the mass media and provide the information the media will need to accurately report the status of the incident and the response to it. The PIO and his team establish a media area that is safe and does not impede with the operations. Hence, the officials busy in the live handling of the response to the disaster are not forced to leave their work and speak to the media.

Coordination with other organisations: Security, Rescue, Ambulance and Fire Brigade

The Liaison Officer reports directly to the IC. His or her duty is to communicate and coordinate with other supporting agencies, units and organisations during the disaster. These could include the police, rangers, armed forces, government rescue agencies, ambulances and paramedics.

Another extremely crucial role is that of the Safety Officer who is responsible for the safety of the personnel and ensures safe working conditions.

Keeping the basic ICS in mind, how can we describe our agencies’ response to the attack and what ideally should have been done?

Was there an incident commander at the site of the burning cargo terminal? The answer is – no, there were many commanders leading the rescue operation from the front, which resulted in an extremely uncoordinated rescue effort. The resources such as fire tenders, cranes, bulldozers and lifters were called in from different organisations with their representatives present on the site directing them. This resulted in individual effort and resulted in a lack of teamwork.

As a result, there were serious delays in getting to the trapped victims.

During disaster management, one of the major obstacles faced in Pakistan is how to handle the television and print media. The media wants to cover the event live and this inevitably lands them in the line of fire. Crime reporters, cameramen, anchor persons and journalists rush to the incident site. This not only exposes them to dangers, but also impedes rescue work.

The media personnel in their bid to get the best shot often also destroy evidence and disrupt the crime scene. However, safety of their lives should be the utmost priority and any action that threatens their safety should be avoided.

See: Just another flight, just another night of terror

During the tragic Karachi airport cargo terminal fire incident, millions of people were witness to the repetitive television reports, live transmissions, news alerts, shouting reporters, frenzied anchorpersons, repeated breaking news, excited crime investigators. We also watched emotional journalists repeatedly claiming their channel broke the news first or got the authorities alerted to start rescue.

Some channels even claimed to expose people stealing cell phones instead of rescuing people, and in this bid for ratings sensationalised the public resulting in the formation of a charged mob. This mob did not only thrash those involved, but also vented their anger out on the other rescuers.

During this event, the media did sensationalise the news and in their bid to top their ratings, challenged quite a few principles of media ethics.

In disaster management, a crucial principle is to restrict the access of media to the incident site. A media holding area is established a safe distance away from the site. This is where the PIO regularly speaks to the media, addresses their questions and provides periodic updates.

In a similar way, the families of the victims are also restricted from entering the site. Angry, frustrated and emotional family members are not only difficult to handle at the incident site but they are often involved in violence towards rescue personnel in form of a mob. This often happens at public hospitals where healthcare professionals and staff regularly become targets of the mob violence.

During the rescue efforts at the cargo terminal and cold storage building, family members and general public who entered the site caused difficulty in the rescue efforts and also led to the formation of a violent mob. Several rescue workers were seen being abused and manhandled by enraged members of the mob.

This tragic incident could have been managed effectively and efficiently, had a disaster plan been made by the relevant authorities beforehand. This plan should have already been regularly practiced, a number of times each year, as 'drills.’

The plan would ideally have an ICS with the Director General Civil Aviation Authority being the IC himself and who had taken charge, or taken over from the initial IC, as soon as he had arrived at the site.

The other administrative organisations like the office of the Commissioner of Karachi and the Fire Brigade, Police and armed forces would have been coordinating with the IC and his team via the Liaison Officer.

The media should have been restricted to the media holding area where representatives from all the coordinating teams would give a joint press briefing periodically. This would eliminate the media running from pillar to post to all different heads of organisations to take their input.

Also read: ‘We reported it blowing up first!’

The families of the victims should have been placed in a separate area where they were regularly informed by the representatives of the organisations. Comfortable arrangement and water should be provided for them.

The incident site should have been cordoned off for the general public. Volunteers from various organisations, scouts and security personnel could efficiently block this access. These details are included in the disaster plan.

In the end, multiple debriefing sessions should have been held at all levels, after the end of rescue effort, where the disaster plan should be evaluated and necessary alterations made.

New solutions should be added to the plan. This new plan is again tested in drills in the future and reevaluated. This cycle of Planning, Drill or Disaster, Debriefing and Editing (Fig. 2) is to be repeated multiple times before a plan is perfected.

Figure 2: Algorithm of Disaster Plan

One of the biggest reasons for the failure of disaster plans is the lack of coordination. This was evident in the cargo terminal rescue incident. The other reasons of disaster plan failure are poor communication between organisations and individuals and a lack of accountability.

Although this was a tragic incident that was mismanaged by the authorities and resulted in the tragic loss of seven lives, this should be a wake-up call and realisation for the authorities.

The media should assume a more responsible role during disaster management. Media Ethics should not be compromised over ratings. The general public should also act responsibly, stay clear of the incident site and avoid obstructing the path of rescue workers.

The government officials and politicians should take concrete steps in establishing disaster plans for all offices, buildings, institutions and parliament assemblies. The ICS is an internationally recommended system which should become a part of every organisation. Saving lives should be our primary goal.