ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, Md. (WDVM) – A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 was taking off from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) in January when an ambulance crossed the same runway, coming within 173 feet of the plane, according to a Federal Aviation Administration analysis.

The FAA’s analysis of the incident shows that an Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) vehicle crossed Runway 15R without authorization from air traffic control on Jan. 12, 2023. The Southwest flight had been cleared to take off from the same runway moments earlier.

“The closest estimated horizontal separation occurred at a distance of 173 feet,” the FAA said.

Air traffic control recordings obtained by captured the moment the Southwest flight was cleared for takeoff at around 1:50 p.m. that day. Seconds later, the fire and rescue vehicle was cleared to cross Runway 10 and instructed to “hold short” of Runway 15R. However, in reading back to ATC, the driver of the ambulance said, “Tower 349, crossing 10 and 15R.”

The incorrect read-back was not caught by the air traffic controller, the FAA said.

When the ambulance was observed approaching the restricted runway, the air traffic controller urgently reminded the ambulance driver of the original instruction only to cross Runway 10. By that point, the ambulance had already crossed Runway 15R and was on an adjacent taxiway.

“The plane took off before it reached the point where the vehicle had crossed. The FAA estimates the vehicle was approximately 170 feet past the runway when the airborne plane flew over that intersection,” an FAA spokesperson said.

In a statement sent to WDCW, BWI spokesperson Jonathan Dean confirmed the incident.

A BWI Marshall Airport Fire and Rescue Department firefighter and medic vehicle crossed a runway without air traffic control authorization. The airport fully cooperated and shared information with the FAA regarding the incident. Based on review of the incident, new procedures were immediately implemented to help ensure safety and to prevent a similar incident in the future. Safety and security remain the highest priorities for BWI Marshall Airport.

Jonathan Dean, Spokesperson for BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport

The FAA categorizes runway incursions based on the level of severity. There are four categories: A, B, C, and D, with A being the most serious. The BWI incident was ranked in Category B.

“Category B is an incident in which separation decreases and there is a significant potential for collision, which may result in a time critical corrective/evasive response to avoid a collision,” according to the FAA.

A spokesman for Southwest Airlines, Chris Perry, said in a statement that “Southwest adheres to Air Traffic Control directions at all times and our Crew did in this scenario too.”

January’s incident at BWI came ahead of multiple similar incidents reported at airfields across the country. In February, an incoming flight at Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport almost collided with another aircraft that had been cleared for landing, and the FAA also investigated a “close call” between planes at Boston Logan International Airport later that same month.

The following month, the FAA called a Safety Summit for transportation officials in Washington, D.C., to “examine actions the nation’s aviation community needs to take to maintain its safety record.” Among the steps the FAA urged was the need to understand and adhere to the safety protocol for preventing collisions and runway incursions, according to a news release from the FAA.