Developing ARFF SOGs and Response Cards


If your department is responsible for covering an airport in your district, developing standard operating guidelines (SOGs), response plans, and response cards should be on your mind whether your airfield is Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 139 indexed or not. As far as aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF) is concerned, indexing determines the level of protection needed based on the number of scheduled flights per day and the size of the aircraft. The smallest classification is General Aviation (GA); no protection required followed by A (minimal protection) up to E. The exact determination and qualifications for indexing are found in FAA Part 139 Subpart D 139.315.

“Ah, we’re just a small general aviation field that only sees some Cessnas and an occasional jet, so we don’t need a fancy response plan!” You don’t? Call Sioux City (IA) Fire Rescue and ask the department members what they would have done on July 19, 1989, without a plan in place when a fully loaded DC-10 came literally barreling down the runway in their jurisdiction. Shrapnel from an engine failure had disabled the aircraft’s hydraulic system, and the plane broke up during an emergency landing on the runway, killing 110 of its 285 passengers and one of the 11 crew members. Some of you may not remember that incident. If you are too old and forgot, refresh your memories. If you are too young and were not in the fire service yet, learn about it.

The “That will never happen here!” mentality has always bothered me. We have enough fatal examples in aviation and in the fire service that prove that line of thinking wrong, and for that reason we must have some sort of a plan. Although when Sioux City’s preplan was first laid out and dry-run, some saw it as “the-sky-is-falling” overkill, but it proved to be the correct plan. Expect the unexpected.

Because we should expect the unexpected, the Lockport (IL) Fire Protection District set out to develop a comprehensive SOG and response card for Lewis Airport (KLOT). Although this airport is not indexed, not controlled by an air traffic control tower (ATCT), and not subject to FAA 139 guidelines (which cover all aspects of airport operations, including ARFF), we nonetheless protect KLOT as if it were indexed because of the size of some of the aircraft we see there. Our response card is set up to provide for staffing, water/foam, medical units, and equipment for the largest aircraft we are likely to see at KLOT. We have received Boeing 727 aircraft in addition to large corporate aircraft (CRJs, Lear Jets, and so forth). They can carry anywhere from 10 to 80 passengers, depending on the size and type of aircraft. 


Our card is set up according to Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) guidelines, and we review the card annually for changes. The MABAS organization began in 1968 in the northwest Chicago suburbs as a way to organize mutual-aid responses to member communities. Formal response (box) cards were set up following the Chicago (IL) Fire Department’s box card system. It consists of still/full still, box, and second- through fifth-alarm categories and spells out exactly who and what is due on each alarm and also provides for station coverage (change of quarters). Over the past 41 years, MABAS has expanded to cover almost all of Illinois, southern Wisconsin, northwest Indiana, extreme southwest Michigan, and the St Louis (MO) metropolitan area. There are almost 100 MABAS divisions, with more than 1,000 member fire and EMS agencies.

Each MABAS division has a central dispatch office to coordinate incidents and may be comprised of a few or a few dozen departments. RED Center (MABAS Division 3, Northbrook, Illinois) is the statewide center in the event of a major disaster or out-of-state response. MABAS was instrumental in organizing a response to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and to Texas after Hurricane Ike. Several dozen Illinois departments and several hundred firefighters participated. This was a requested response and not a freelanced “we’re coming to help you whether you want it or not” response. The MABAS model is now being adopted throughout the country as a way to organize responses to any emergency. 


In Lockport, we set up responses for each of our six stations (still districts), water rescue, hazmat, technical rescue, and ARFF. The still district responses include two fire (hydrant and rural) cards and an emergency medical service (EMS) card. Even though KLOT is in Station 6’s still (response) area, an aviation incident on or near the airport gets its own response (Figure 1). The airport gets its own card because a town may only be able to send one piece of equipment, and we did not want to pull several cards for a single incident.

Our predetermined response (box) card for Lewis Airport and all aviation-related incidents districtwide. If a crash occurs off airport property, this automatically upgrades the response to at least a full still level alarm. The response is set up to provide enough fire and emergency medical service units for the largest aircraft that use the airport. The tenders listed provide enough initial water to exhaust our available foam product, which is enough to handle and maintain foam coverage for our largest aircraft. Additional foam can be brought in from the Citgo Refinery, which is in neighboring Romeoville. Source: LTFPD ARFF Division.

For example, if we requested an engine from Northwest Homer on Box 6H, a tanker on Box 6T, and an ambulance on Box 6EMS, they may only send us an ambulance. Since their tanker is essential to our operation, we would rather have that. Therefore, we set up box card 11ARFF to provide for towns that could or could not send multiple apparatus. We also did not want to burden our MABAS Dispatch (Orland Central, Division 19) with having to replace companies that could not respond if we were to use three separate cards. It also requires us to read only one card instead of three cards at once.

When looking at the card, the still alarm is designed for use as a standby or Alert I for typical aircraft. A full still is used for a crash/Alert III of a small or medium aircraft and also for a standby or Alert II for a larger aircraft. The box alarm and higher is for use in Alert IIIs that involve larger aircraft that carry more passengers and thus potentially higher casualties and larger fire problems.

The card also provides for special equipment such as a foam tanker from a refinery next to our district and also for the MABAS Division 10 command/communications vehicle. All engine companies listed on the card are advance life support (ALS) capable (nontransport) so that ALS care can be maintained even if no ambulances are yet on site. The squads (heavy rescue) carry all tools and equipment needed to access and lift a disabled or damaged aircraft, including equipment for spills and leaks of hazardous fluids. All of the ambulances listed are ALS capable and staffed; the card allows for them to return to the scene from the transport hospital as directed by the incident commander (IC).

Another facet of our response plan is a preset guide for companies to follow during a standby (Alert I or II). Every suppression vehicle, the Plainfield tanker, the two ARFF rigs, and the shift commander all have a copy in their vehicles. Page 1 is a map of the airfield that shows runways and taxiways and their designations (Figure 2). Page 2 lists the still companies and where they are to report on the airfield based on which runway the stricken aircraft is using (Figure 3). Page 3 lists the aviation phonetics so all companies use proper terminology while on the airfield (Figure 4). The idea was borrowed from the Chicago (IL) Fire Department and is based on procedures for standbys at Midway Airport (MDW). It has given our companies additional guidance when operating at our airport. As with any guideline, it allows for flexibility but still maintains order in the event of a standby.




In addition to developing a physical response plan, personnel needed guidelines by which to operate at an incident. ARFF personnel developed an SOG specifically for ARFF incidents. Figure 5 shows an abbreviated version of the SOG. This plan addresses not only emergencies involving aircraft but also responses to the airport property for EMS runs and structural calls (fire alarms and fires). To see the complete SOG, click on

Since the airport sees air traffic 24 hours a day, even for nonARFF-related incidents, companies responding to and entering airport property must adhere to the guidelines of operating around aircraft. Last year, our department responded to an alarm at 2 a.m.; the first company on scene was surprised when a plane from Lewis University’s flight school taxied out in front of them from its hanger. It was later determined that the student pilot needed some flight time and decided to go up in the early hours of the morning when there was little or no air traffic. Fortunately, the apparatus operator was familiar with the airport layout and was able to steer clear of the taxiing plane.

Because our ARFF vehicles are cross-staffed with regular fire companies and nonARFF personnel at times, the response guideline lists specific duties for personnel to follow for the various calls they may face at the airport. This detailed plan has been put to the test several times since it was developed, and it made those incidents run smoothly.

In January 2010, we had our first call since developing the plan; it involved a Lewis University Flight School plane that could not deploy its landing gear. Our crews were dispatched and, despite some first-time mistakes and response problems, the plan worked as written, and the plane landed safely after the gear was manually lowered prior to landing.

Several months later, the same units were dispatched to a similar scenario involving a different aircraft from the school. This time, the companies performed almost flawlessly, since they had learned the lessons from the first incident. This plane, too, landed without incident. The instructor onboard the aircraft lowered the landing gear manually. The fire department maintained communication with the plane, the flight school, and the airport manager throughout the hour-long incident without any problems.

Once a year, all department members receive refresher training on the SOG and any updates. Additionally, all nonARFF members receive hands-on training with the ARFF vehicles and also run through a full-scale scenario using our school bus training prop to enhance and test the skills needed in an ARFF incident. The prop simulates conditions nearly identical to those found in larger regional jets that frequent our airport (photo 1). 

(1) Photo by author.

I hope that I have offered some insight for you who operate at smaller airports and may have been looking for something more in line with smaller operations.

MICHAEL J. LOPINA is a 21-year veteran of the fire service and a career lieutenant/paramedic with the Lockport Township (IL) Fire Protection District. He is the Section 4 manager of the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting Working Group (ARFFWG), an international organization committed to improving ARFF operations around the world. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from Lewis University and numerous Illinois fire certifications. 

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