The most common way to disseminate information during an emergency is the so-called “communication triangle” in which the controller gathers and relays all the necessary information from/to the flight crew and the ground teams (aircraft rescue and firefighting – ARFF).
With direct emergency communication, a new communication capability is provided to allow direct communication between the flight crew and ARFF. The controller remains in the communication loop but in a passive position.
The direct communication between the flight crew and the ARFF offers a number of advantages over the standard communication loop:
Faster information exchange between the flight crew and ARFF
Better coordination between the flight crew and ARFF;
Reduced risk for ARFF team – e.g. reduced chance of injury due to unexpected evacuation slides deployment;
Reduced risk for the passengers during an evacuation – ARFF heavy equipment and extinguishing devices in proximity of the aircraft can be a source of danger to the passengers;
Avoidance of unnecessary evacuation and facilitation of controlled evacuation (the latter is performed when there is no immediate danger; the speed is slower but the risk of injury is reduced);
Reduced communication on the ATC frequencies and reduced controller workload;
If required or appropriate, it is very easy to revert to the standard communication loop with the controller assuming the mediator role.
Equipment and training
Since the existing communications equipment is used, no investment is required for airlines and ANSPs. They only need to familiarize the personnel with the new protocol. This is not the case for ARFF, however, as they will need to invest both in equipment (radio and recording systems) and language training.
Issues and challenges
While direct emergency communication offers valuable benefits during emergency situations, there are also some issues that need to be addressed and a number of challenges to be overcome:
Direct emergency communication is not-so-effective unless widespread – the benefits are limited if the procedures only apply at a few aerodromes.
At some aerodromes the capability is offered in the local (non-English) language only thus limiting the usability;
Different procedures in different countries/aerodromes further limit the benefits;
Different frequencies are used in different countries/ aerodromes – while this is generally a minor issue, the use of one frequency globally (or at least regionally) would save valuable seconds when time is critical;
New equipment and training are needed – these cost time and money;
The costs and benefits are not equally spread between the participants – ARFF have the highest proportion of the costs while airlines and ATC benefit the most.
Use of direct emergency communication
Currently direct emergency communication is available in:
The UK and Australia at all aerodromes;
Germany – a test of the services was conducted at five major airports; the test phase finished on 1.07.2012 and the ARFF frequency (121.55) has been officially designated. Airports were directed to prepare for English language usage for emergency communications by 2014;
United States – The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has published a recommendation to the FAA to establish a designated frequency to be used for direct communication between flight crews and ARFF;
Other countries also plan to implement, or currently use, direct emergency communication on a smaller scale (e.g. in Switzerland it is used in Zurich only, and only in the German language)