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Operation Vigilance Emergency Exercise

GTAA Operation Vigilance

Full Scale Emergency Exercise

On Wednesday September 25th 2013, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) carried out it’s annual full scale emergency exercise, in this case, dubbed Operation Vigilance. The GTAA is mandated by the federal government to carry out one such exercise each year, along with one tabletop scenario. The exercises alternate between an aircraft crash response/medical scenario to a security scenario each year. The exercise was designed and executed by GTAA Emergency Management and a planning team consisting of partner agencies, to challenge the GTAA functional groups in an unlawful interference to civil aviation scenario. Many of the Airports’ primary agencies are involved as active participants. These include: GTAA, Peel Regional Police (PRP), Toronto Pearson Fire & Emergency Services (FES), Transport Canada (TC), Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) and Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) amongst others. Twelve members of YYZAW participated in Operation Vigilance, simulating passengers waiting to board two departing flights, along with about 120 other volunteers. They were: Andrew Cline (YYZAW Administrator), Sheldon Benner, Dushan Divjak, Fred Eid, Mark Fisher, John Griffith, Mark Markovic, Ken Mist, Tom Podolec, Ron Stanley (and wife), Paul Thacker, and Jo-Anne Woodbridge. The passengers were equipped with all types of personal carry on items including laptops, camera bags, suitcases, and extra clothing. The volunteers came from every walk of life including GTAA employees, Doctors, Lawyers, reporters, sales people, students and aviation enthusiasts, and represented a typical cross section of passengers (without children due to minimum age waiver requirements).

All of the exercise volunteers (participants), controllers, evaluators, and observers met at FESTI for briefings and preparation at 1930. Briefings were carried out by the GTAA Exercise Director  – Carlos Geraldes; Exercise Coordinator Amanda Meehan and Exercise Evaluator Lead Sandy Van Solm. GTAA Media Manager Scott Armstrong also spoke, encouraging the volunteers to use social media and tweet as frequently as they wished, as they actually would day-to-day, with the stipulation that it be noted that it was an exercise not a real event. GTAA’s media staff were monitoring online social media live as they would in a real emergency event. At 2045 briefings began, followed shortly by boarding GTAA busses for the drive to Terminal 3. The StartEx commenced at 2230 in the main hall of T3. The volunteers on check in at FESTI having been provided with Westjet boarding passes processed through standard pre boarding screening (PBS), with bags, shoes and belongings into trays and through the x-ray machines, walking through the metal detector, before proceeding to the assigned gates. Gates 18 and 19 were assigned, and the GTAA kindly provided Tim Horton’s coffee and Timbits there for the volunteers.

Once the volunteers were at the departure lounge, WestJet personnel began issuing flight delay messages for both flights, to Winnipeg and Vancouver. Although no reason was initially offered, eventually we realized that it was a security issue, and shortly afterward all passengers were asked to move back down the pier to Gate 22, a safe distance from the original gates; this move simulated a move of much greater distance that exercise restraints could not allow on the night. Shortly after that an individual was escorted past us in handcuffs from the original gate area in the custody of PRP and other officials. After the fact it was revealed that an unattended bag was found in the washroom adjacent to the original gates, reported by a passenger. After the move to the new gate, little more additional information was provided to the passengers, although a several queried the WestJet personnel, or PRP officers containing the area. A decision was made to further re-locate passengers to another location, with PRP requesting passengers leave their hand luggage in situ, the bags left behind would then have been screened by dogs and/or electronics for explosives trace. At about 0130 all was made clear as a fully equipped Peel Regional Police Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer made his way down the hall past the gate where the passengers were located to the Gate 18/19 area where the unattended bag had been discovered, and rendered it ’safe’. Following which EndEx was declared.

In the post exercise debrief, it was explained that an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was being carried in two bags by two passengers to be assembled and detonated. The first suspect was caught in pre-boarding screening, however both components of the IED, and the other suspect, for the benefit of the exercise, were allowed through the screening point. Screening images and surveillance cameras were reviewed to link the packages with the suspects. The unattended bag left in the washroom was linked to one of the suspects identified at screening  – the man who was later arrested and taken away in handcuffs. The assembled IED was placed in a smaller piece of carry-on luggage abandoned on gates 18/19 when the passengers were re-located initially.

Observers from many internal and external agencies participated, and included two officers from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Police Department; Sgt. Tom Pratt and Officer David Hornsby. They were in town to observe the exercise as well as day-to-day operations with Peel Regional Police, Metro Toronto Police (including the marine unit) and YYZ Airport Watch. The latter was to help evaluate the possible establishment of an Airport Watch chapter at DFW. Officer Hornsby also attended the International Airport Watch Summit at Minneapolis St.Paul International Airport in August where he met Andrew Cline and Brian Dunn from YYZAW. The evening after the exercise, the 3 met for dinner and further discussed the Airport Watch program.

Overall, Operation Vigilance was a very well carried out exercise. Although generally unexciting from the volunteer viewpoint, they did an exemplary job of playing bored and frustrated passengers! One common impression was that it seemed to be a long time before the EOD team appeared in the area where the bag was left in the bathroom, much of the work was unseen by volunteers until the appearance of the EOD team to render safe the device! GTAA did a terrific job of keeping the volunteers fed and provided a nice gift bag as thanks for their participation, and missing out on their beauty sleep! Thanks to everyone involved.