IHS Janes Airport Review Interviews CrisisCast

Posted on Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Making a drama out of a crisis – can stress testing through roleplay improve security?

Barry Cross – IHS Jane’s Airport Review

Training personnel to deal with major incidents is perhaps one of the most demanding challenges faced by airport managers. Having the correct protocol in place is key, but making sure that everything works when an incident occurs is another matter altogether.

There is a niche market for helping stress test all the main scenarios security personnel are likely to encounter. Crisis Cast, for instance, employs specialist, psychologically briefed actors who can be used in a variety of situations to ensure that incident management protocols really do work.

“We don’t use actors who are between dramatic roles, but target and cast our company from people who have experience of business, whose lifelong ambition has been to act,” said Brian Mitchell, founder and managing director. “In particular, we seek out ex-military [personnel] who not only advise us, but also provide some of the roleplay. These people understand how security systems work.”

Mitchell noted that ‘secret shopper’ deployment is a popular way of stress-testing security provision. A Crisis Cast actor, for example, would arrive at the airport already holding a legitimate air ticket and would check in normally. Occasionally, the designated actor would be carrying a concealed weapon, although the client would be advised of this well in advance and have an anonymous umpire in place, who would step in immediately to end the exercise if alarms are activated.

“The concealed weapon tests whether the people using x-ray equipment are actually awake,” stressed Mitchell.

Another variation is for the actor to object to the way he is being treated, perhaps complaining about an obtrusive pat down. Protocols are in place to deal with such passengers, but are they correctly followed?

“From a training point of view, in these types of situation, what we are focussing on is aberrant behaviours and how airport personnel react to these,” he explained.

Crisis Cast actors also undertake ‘penetration testing’, in which they deviate from standard passenger flow (deliberately going the wrong way down a corridor or entering through an exit door, for instance. Also included are anomalous signage situations – passengers going the wrong way through an exit door, for example.

Mitchell said: “We provide useful information to airports about their procedures. Are protocols in place responding to peril or threat quickly, accurately, politely and humanely enough? We can demonstrate behaviour that challenges those protocols, with the ultimate aim of trying to break them, which is how the client can best learn how they might be improved.”

In addition, Crisis Cast can provide up to 200 actors in a pure training role, undertaking scenarios with either delegates or learners to practice. Simulations of major runway crashes, for example, aim to test incident response and, crucially, how reputational damage control is implemented.

“Since the Asiana Airlines final approach crash at San Francisco International in July 2013 where a photograph of the crash appeared on Twitter within 30 seconds of impact, airlines and airports have become acutely aware of the need to have a robust media plan in place that incorporates social media planning,” Mitchell noted. In the Crisis Cast simulation, a news team on the apron interviews survivors as they emerge from the smoke and chaos of the accident.

Crisis Cast also works with a strategic partner called Hanover Associates. Hanover undertakes specific staff training exercises, using experts such as ex-counter terrorism professionals, police officers or former military personnel. These can train both Crisis Cast actors to fully appreciate how to play their specific role and also airport personnel on how to spot genuinely suspicious passengers.

“After running a training scenario, we often sit down and talk to the actors and ask them how they felt as they were being dealt with by airport personnel. At the same time, we also get feedback from the staff themselves. So it quickly becomes 360-degree training, from which everybody benefits,” said Hanover Associates Managing Director Mick Massey.

In terms of behavioural training, both men highlight the fact that pilots in uniform, for example, are able to convey a certain degree of authority, but how do you train somebody to recognise when somebody in a uniform is perhaps not what they seem? The key, stressed Massey, is training involving experts such as Hanover is able to provide.

“There are lots of companies providing role play, but what they are not doing is providing the subject matter experts that we do,” he said. “If staff incorrectly identify someone as acting suspiciously then a whole terminal could be unnecessarily closed down, costing the airport millions in lost revenue. Taking a decision is not enough; you must be able to manage the consequences of any subsequent actions.”

Real time stress behaviour training can change insights, added Mitchell, enabling staff to respond more quickly when confronted by the real thing.

“How should one of our clients know when a training exercise has been a success? In our experience, training to fail is the worst thing you can do; it’s a waste of money. We believe you learn more doing it right. You can also film an exercise and continue to learn from it,” said Massey.

Both Massey and Mitchell assert that this type of training offers a return on investment: if it can help an airport to keep a terminal running smoothly even in the most difficult of circumstances, it will effectively have paid for itself.