Assembly point

Published:  10 June, 2009

When BAA Heathrow’s fire brigade started preparing for the arrival of the Airbus A380 around three years ago, the airport fire brigade conducted its annual emergency evacuation on a wide-bodied aircraft. The exercise was carried out on a 747, and rather quickly the brigade realised that managing a large number of people on the runway during an emergency would be a problem. How do you gather these people together in order for them to go through full casualty reception, while at the same time dealing with the incident from an emergency response perspective?


Previous solutions had always relied on a device being brought along to the incident after it had already happened, meaning that in the meantime passengers were wondering around aimlessly in a hazardous situation.

Heathrow had been looking into this problem for a while, and had not found a solution, until John Trew, Fire Manager for BAA Heathrow visited a major exhibition in Birmingham, UK, three years ago. Ian Bonthrone, European Market Manager, Federal Signal Commercial Transport Systems was also at the show, where he was exhibiting a product developed for the Spanish Police. This traffic management system was developed with RTCs in mind and consisted of a vehicle with an LED sign on its roof.

Trew saw potential in this idea, and based on this concept Federal Signal developed the prototype of PEMS (Passenger Emergency Management System) which was then trialed at BAA Heathrow, BAA Gatwick and BAA Southampton Airports. Following this, the clients wrote down an extensive user specification, stating amongst other things that this product had to be at an incident immediately and therefore installation on a vehicle was essential. This also meant that these vehicles had to respond to an incident within three minutes from having received the alarm call, as stated in ICAO regulations.

Currently, all of Heathrow’s PEMS – five in total – are fitted on 4x4s. In addition, PEMS had to meet all the non-vehicle warning lighting to meet the regulations of ICAO chapter 14 as well as meeting the UK CAP 168 regulations. PEMS includes a “follow me” board of which the lights must have an angle of projection of plus or minus 10 degrees from horizontal, with an intensity of 40 and 400 cd.  He adds that the “follow me” board had to be deployable with the push of a button. 

How do you ensure that people are actually looking at the LED message board? “To be able to solve this issue we set the device up with three different alerting messages, an LED message saying “assemble here”, alternating flashing arrows, and an audio message. After conducting several tests on various aircraft, we found that this was the solution which delivered the optimum results. However, we found that even without the audio message and the alerting message, the people automatically gravitated towards the arrows. During the test, we approached the aircraft from the front and rear stab, and placed the PEMS about 100 metres away, just outside the cordon, and this meant that all passengers were able to see the signs at any time.”

Heathrow airport is currently in the process of writing the operational procedures for PEMS. In essence, these will state that the plane needs to be approached from either between two and ten o’ clock, or from between four and eight o’ clock. This ensures that the message will be noticed at all times, because when people come down the emergency slides they automatically look up and around when the reach the floor.

In addition, PEMS features a daylight sensor for foggy weather rather than night. This enables the activation of the manual override which has the highest intensity light allowed within the ICAO regulations. The intensity at night is half of that of the fog mode.

At the moment many airport authorities in the UK have either purchased PEMS or are considering it. Internationally, the popularity of the system is also taking off, as the Polish Airport Authority is in the process of buying 18 units for five airports across Poland. “In addition, we have received interest from the US, Switzerland and Malaysia. Of course, we can set the system up in any language, with alternating messages in English as well as the country’s native language. The built-in sounder (200 watt speaker/180 decibels) can be set up in any language, and even when the passengers don’t speak any of the languages broadcasted by PEMS, there is the noise which attracts attention to the message. In addition, the two flashing arrows indicate where they should assemble.”

Bonthrone says that Heathrow Airport Fire Service is extremely happy with their investment, and that it was a real challenge to develop PEMS in line with all the regulations that affect the daily operations of an airport fire brigade. “To integrate a system that has to be used in day-to-day operations, while having to work 100 out of 100 times during an emergency, can cause some complex electrical challenges. However, we have integrated PEMS into the CanBus system of the vehicle, and all electronics are encased. Heathrow check their system once a day, and also use the arrow messaging for other non emergency incident, such as for directing traffic on the perimeter taxi way or vehicle accidents.

“Our aim with PEMS was to reduce human involvement to as little as possible, and the only operation the brigade has to carry out is to switch the board on. Once the vehicle is decelerating below 60 miles an hour, they can power the PEMS up within 40 seconds, making the safe evacuation of passengers a less complicated and challenging job, providing the brigade with more scope to focus on the actual emergency.”


  • Operation Florian

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