To Declare or Not To Declare

Stephen Burgess

By Stephen Burgess
EOC Supervisor, Fireside Partners Inc

Posted on October 4, 2022
Air rescue service team running to the helicopter on the heliport

At Fireside Partners, our Flight Monitoring team follows a 5-tier classification model for triaging and responding to parameter exceedance events. In this model, the two highest classification tiers are dubbed “emergency response plan-activating events” (ERP-activating events) and “critical events,” respectively.

Our team classifies events as “ERP-activating” if they have caused our client to activate their ERP for any reason or if, in our judgement, they should cause our client to activate their ERP due to clear and present damage to life, limb, property or reputation. Thankfully, these events are relatively rare, occurring less than .001 times per 100,000 flights we monitor.

On the other hand, situations warranting classification as “critical events” are much more common, appearing three times per week on average within our monitored fleet. Critical events, by our model, are situations where damage to life, limb, property or reputation is likely but has not yet occurred, or damage has occurred but it is minor and does not warrant full ERP activation.

Due to their higher prevalence versus ERP-activating events, we propose that critical events pose a powerful opportunity for organizations to practice and refine their emergency response procedures. Further, we feel that given their strong potential to escalate into ERP-activating situations, organizations should by default, “over-respond” to critical events out of an abundance of caution.

The Reasoning for “Over-Responding”
As part of this practice of “over-responding,” we suggest that flight crews should err on the side of declaring an emergency with ATC whenever they encounter a critical event. While their specific classification terminology differs from ours, we believe that the ICAO, in its Annex 10 Volume II, and the FAA, in Joint Order (JO) 7110.65, offer clear guidance on this topic by directing a two-tiered approach to emergency declarations.

Both organizations outline that emergencies can be declared as either a “distress” condition or as an “urgency” condition, and define these conditions as follows:

Distress: “A condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and requiring immediate assistance.”

Urgency: “A condition of being concerned about safety and requiring timely but not immediate assistance; a potential distress condition.”

Given that the ICAO and FAA’s definition of an “urgency” condition aligns closely with our “critical event” classification, we recommend that flight crews follow the urgency declaration guidance outlined in JO 7110.65 in these situations, summarized below:

A pilot in any urgency condition should immediately take the following action, not necessarily in the order listed, to obtain assistance:

1. If possible, climb for improved communications and better radar and direction-finding detection. (Note that unauthorized climb or descent under IFR conditions within controlled airspace is prohibited, except as permitted by 14 CFR Section 91.3b.)

2. If equipped with a transponder:

  • Continue squawking their assigned discrete code unless instructed otherwise
  • If unable to establish communications with an air traffic facility, squawk 7700

3. Transmit an urgency message consisting of as many as necessary of the following elements, preferably in this order:

  • Name of the ATC facility you are contacting
  • Aircraft identification and type
  • Nature of urgency
  • Weather
  • Pilots’ intentions and request
  • Present position, and heading; or if lost, last known position, time, and heading
  • Altitude
  • Fuel remaining in minutes
  • Number of people on board
  • Any other useful information

In our view, following this declaration procedure during critical events is the most prudent course of action, as it ensures regulatory compliance, solicits priority handling from ATC and sets the stage well for follow-on response actions if the situation deteriorates.

Further, making a formal urgency declaration serves as a powerful mental and procedural exercise for the flight crew. It forces them to fully assess the situation as they prepare to communicate the “nature of urgency” and their intentions to ATC.

When In Doubt, Declare It Out
Per JO 7110.65 Air traffic controllers are granted significant room for their judgement regarding emergencies and are directed that if they “are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, [to] handle it as though it were an emergency.” Further, when they believe an emergency exists, they should “select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances…”

In short, if flight crews do not declare an emergency themselves, ATC can declare an emergency for them—and we often see this play out in situations we respond to. In our view, this serves as one more reason for flight crews to err on the side of caution and “when in doubt, declare it out.”

If the first step in responding to an emergency is to recognize that an emergency is present, and the second step is to activate the appropriate resources, we propose that making an urgency declaration, as outlined above, is a simple measure that accomplishes both steps while setting your flight crew and your organization at large up for a positive outcome.

Federal Aviation Administration. (2021, June 17). Air traffic control (JO 7110.65Z). U.S. Department of Transportation.

International Civil Aviation Organization. (2021, October). Aeronautical telecommunications: Communication procedures including those with PANS status (AN 10-2).

Fireside Partners Inc Fireside Partners Inc
Fireside Partners, Inc., is a fully integrated emergency services provider designed to provide all services and resources required to respond effectively and compassionately in a crisis situation. Dedicated to building world-class emergency response programs (ERP), Fireside instills confidence, resiliency and readiness for high-net worth and high-visibility individuals and businesses. Fireside provides a broad array of services focused on prevention and on-site support to help customers protect their most important assets: their people and their good name.

© 2023 Fireside Partners Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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