"Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when you believe an emergency exists or is imminent, select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances and which most nearly conforms to the instructions in this manual."
As I begin Radar school, I have realized something odd. During the moments when the least amount of rules may apply (emergency situations), a controller's actions will be most scrutinized and second guessed. Take the paragraph above, straight out of Chapter 10 in the 7110.65. Almost everything a controller does during normal operations is dictated by rules prescribed by the 7110.65. Once an emergency situation is deemed to exist, there IS guidance contained in the rest of the chapter. However, it is limited, and most of it simply ensures that the proper coordination with other facilities will take place in a way that positively contributes to the outcome of the emergency.
Once a pilot declares an emergency, a controller is expected to use his or her best judgment to assist the pilot. Once the controllers are aware of the callsign, type of aircraft, the nature of the emergency and the pilots intentions, its up to the controllers to determine what additional information is needed, what additional information the pilot has time to, or the ability to, relay, and what action should be taken based on the information received. You'll notice I began the last sentence with "controllers" as plural. This is due to all that coordination that is required with other sectors and facilities. Emergencies require manpower. At the Center level, the coordination can be staggering. Surrounding sectors may need to be aware of the emergency so they can avoid that aircraft's current flight track, as well as potential track if it cannot maintain altitude or heading. Traffic intended to enter the sector may need to be diverted or delayed, as the sector handling the emergency may not be able to work a normal amount of traffic, since most of the attention is now focused on the emergency and all this coordination. Also, the next sector to work the airplane needs to be briefed on ALL information that pertains to the emergency. In addition, supervisors (ok, they're called Frontline Managers now) may need to call ahead to have fire equipment or ambulances standing by at the airport.
Often times, controllers will still be able to stick to the rule book when handling emergencies. This is not always the case. There are times when separation can not be maintained due to weather, aircraft malfunctions, or any other reason that would require declaration of an emergency. This does not preclude the controller from the primary mission, which is keeping planes from hitting other airplanes or terrain. Rules may need to be broken to keep people alive and planes intact. There is a big difference between ensuring standard separation of 5 miles, 1000 feet, and the planes actually, physically hitting each other. The latter is unacceptable, of course, and can quickly render the first standard a second priority.
The decision to start breaking rules at the expense of saving lives need to come in an instant. My instructors are doing their best to instill an ability to make decisions like these if and when they are needed. While we attempt to use a simulator to practice different techniques and tactics when dealing with emergencies, it's still a simulator. On top of this, stories of past situations are invaluable. Perhaps, one day, I'll call upon the memory of my instructor relating how they dealt successfully to a similar situation and act appropriately.
Oh, and don't forget: All of this split second decision making, with life or death possibly one move away; everything we say will be over-analyzed by folks ranging from fellow controllers, administration types, and possibly even the NTSB and the media if things don't go as planned. So, while the rules may have just gone out the window, someone's ability to remind me what I SHOULD have done is still alive and well. All in the interest of keeping the flying pilots and passengers alive and well. Thats why we're here, after all.