The Wild Blue & Beyond

Audrey Fraizer

Nothing in air, on building site, or on runway escapes the attention of emergency dispatchers at Salt Lake City (SLC) International Airport (Utah, USA).

The communication center sits adjacent to the runway and less than a half-mile northeast of a new terminal that will completely replace the present facility built 50 years ago to accommodate half the 26 million passengers now flying in and out every year.

The first phase of the estimated $3.6 billion construction project in its sixth year of the 10-year timetable opens to the public in September 2020. All eyes will be on the 908,000-square-foot Central Terminal with every inch of it patrolled by remote cameras streaming live to the dispatch center.

Video surveillance is far from a recent introduction at the SLC airport, with a closed-circuit television surveillance system around for security purposes for more than 20 years. The way the system is used, however, has expanded with the times. Constant scanning reinforces the safety of passengers, staff, and property from accidental or malicious acts of vandalism, assault, trespassing in restricted areas, and other threats, and—with the benefit of medical ProQA® in the communication center—accelerates out-of-hospital care for passengers and staff injured or suddenly ill.

The security cameras are positioned at entrances (parking garage and light-rail stop), security checkpoints, terminals and gates, and all open areas to get continuous footage of airport activity. Cameras at the construction site provide updated progress reports to the public via social media.

The video surveillance system is as dynamic as the airport redevelopment project. A solid-state color security system has replaced the original monochrome security cameras, and the 1,100 cameras currently monitoring live digital images of the airport via a computer network is expected to double with the Central Terminal’s opening, followed by completion of a Gateway Center (shops and restaurants) and two main concourses by 2024.

Everything is recorded and saved using video management software, said Airport Operations Supervisor Jeremy McCulley. Long gone are the days of analog archives stored on cassette tapes. The videos are stored digitally for liability purposes and training.

Take, for example, the passenger who suddenly disappears from the moving walkway or the escalator. A less astute observer from a distance would not catch the fall, much less the fact that one less traveler is in line heading toward departure. Not so from the set of emergency communications.  The videos are learning opportunities.

“Did you see that?” asked Whitney Rogers, Airport Operations Supervisor—Training, while streaming a video scrubbed for privacy. “We know where something happens and can tell people where to go for an AED [in cases of suspected sudden cardiac arrest] rather than asking if an AED is available close by.”

The situational awareness from a distance develops alongside the other multitasking job requirements. Each console has two video screens that stream 24/7, with views dependent on the assignment and, at a minimum, there are two emergency dispatchers on shift at night and three during the day. Emergency dispatchers can control the view, although it’s rare for them to catch an incident in real time. More often, it’s an attendant arriving on scene and calling for assistance. Cameras are zoomed to view the incident, giving emergency dispatchers the eye and ear in coordinating response.

Emergency dispatchers do not dispatch from the video software system. The airport is home to the first airport-user of the medical ProQA (since 2004), and Emergency Medical Dispatchers go through the same scripted process of asking Key Questions, giving PAIs and PDIs, and selecting the appropriate response code. The airport communication center is also the first and only airport medical Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE).

Lifesaving tools for serious hemorrhage, drug overdose, and sudden cardiac arrest—the stuff of PAIs—are readily available from inside cabinet-size emergency rooms located throughout the three terminals. Cabinets originally placed for AED access also store Narcan nasal spray and instructions and bleeding control kits containing tourniquets, chest seals, trauma bandages, markers, and instructions. Contents are accessible to airport employees and the traveling public.

Cameras are a standout feature because of the visual component added to dispatch. They can watch the delivery of an AED, Narcan, or tourniquet to the patient.

On-scene rescue is discreet, and while the video keeps running, the phone line is disconnected once medical personnel come on scene and take over care, said Heidi Harward, Airport Operations Manager—Safety Programs.

“It’s incredible for us to see someone resuscitated,” Harward said. “But security clears the area of passengers for access and to discourage rubbernecking.”

What goes on outside the terminals gives Sam Allen, Airport Operations Manager—Airfield, the biggest office—the airport campus of which nearly 50,000 acres in four runways are constantly cleaned free from rocks, hardware, stray animals, or anything else that could jeopardize flight safety.

“All we care about is moving people and moving planes,” Allen said, along with the seasonal task of plowing upward of four to five feet of snow. He and his staff of 34 also coordinate ground safety for construction workers, which can number up to 2,400 people on any given day.

Streaming video

At the airport, streaming is an accepted part of the system for surveillance and a facet of a job, that like PSAP counterparts, requires multitasking. SLC airport emergency dispatchers gather accurate information from callers and use the information to dispatch response. They communicate using a multi-channel radio system and maintain daily incident logs. The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and Salt Lake City Advanced Records Management System are used to determine vehicle registration, criminal history, warrants, stolen property, and gun files. They also coordinate with the National Weather Service housed on the airport’s east side to disseminate severe weather forecasts.

Training lasts six months, although acclimation to the job generally takes another half year.

“You have to know the inside, outside, and in between,” Rogers said. “But you don’t have to watch everything that comes in.”

Streaming will be new to most traditional communication centers accustomed to a nonvisual environment. The effort will also contrast markedly under the NG911 initiative designed to switch from legacy circuit-switched voice to IP-based networks. NG911 allows callers to transmit videos to emergency dispatchers via mobile devices. Caller transmission of information (video or text) is not a reality at the airport and neither is the technology for an emergency dispatcher to send a link to the caller that allows the cellphone camera to show surroundings in real time. The technology to watch an incident no matter how it’s relayed, however, does raise the same concerns.

“You can’t expect people to automatically accept seeing what they’ve only heard,” McCulley   said. “Not everyone wants to or can cope with that level of a situation.”

McCulley recommends limiting visual access in a PSAP, leaving it open to those who are trained and able to transmit the video to responders, sort out relevant information, and ignore distractions.

Rogers said there’s also an awareness factor. This is not home video. This is something personal happening in a very public place.

“We build dispatchers up to be superheroes, be we can only handle so much,” she said. “You hold on to some things more than others.”

Streaming video is essentially a tool that relates to an emergency dispatcher’s situational awareness and understanding the boundaries within dispatch.

“The job will always be about gathering the appropriate information to provide appropriate help,” McCulley said. “It’s all about keeping the focus.”

Salt Lake City Airport Fast Facts

  • A cinder-covered landing strip in a marshy pasture called Basque Flats (after the Spanish-French sheepherders in the area) was the rudimentary beginning of the airport.
  • In 1933, at a cost of $52,000, Salt Lake City built an airport administration building that housed a passenger waiting room, mail room, airport manager’s office, lunchroom, weather observatory, radio control room, and leased office space to airlines.
  • From 1975 to 1980 the airport grew to 7,500 acres.
  • In 2002, the city and airport hosted the Olympic Winter Games.
  • In 2014, Salt Lake City’s Terminal Redevelopment Program broke ground.
  • Ten airlines and their affiliates serve SLC International Airport. 
  • In 2018, the airport served 25,554,244 passengers and hosted 337,276 operations (take-offs and landings), including commercial air traffic, cargo, general aviation, and military activity.
  • There are approximately 370 scheduled commercial departures from SLC each day, serving close to 98 cities with nonstop flights.

Source: About the Airport at https://www.slcairport.com/about-the-airport/


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